Every year over 150,000 children die of vaccine-preventable illnesses in Pakistan and in order to prevent these deaths, public-private partnerships and civil society engagement are critical to achieving full immunization coverage in the country.
The reasons owing to which parents do not get their children vaccinated include poverty, low rates of female literacy, poor environmental hygiene and living conditions while bad governance and lack of accountability in Extended Program on Immunization (EPI) is another cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in Pakistan.
These views were expressed by health and immunization experts while speaking at the second National Vaccination Seminar, jointly organized by the Trust for Vaccines and Immunizations (TVI) and Aga Khan University (AKU) on Saturday.
Various other organizations including the USAID, UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO) and Rotary International also collaborated with the TVI and AKU in organizing the two-day event.
Experts from both public and private sector health institutions as well as government officials associated with EPI and vaccination programs also presented several recommendations to enhance the vaccination coverage in the country that will be included in the National Vaccination Action Plan currently being drafted.
Speaking at the inaugural session of the two-day seminar, Sindh Health Secretary Syed Hashim Raza Zaidi said that a multi-dimensional approach was required to achieve optimum efficacy of oral polio vaccine (OPV) administered to children in the country.
Mr Zaidi also expressed concerns that despite high vaccination coverage in the entire Pakistan, the dreaded disease of polio has not been eradicated yet and added that during last three months some nine conformed cases of polio were registered.
Astonishingly, most of these children confirmed infected with polio Type-1 virus had received eight to 10 doses of OPV, he added.
Two of these nine children confirmed infected with the polio virus hailed from Karachi’s slums while the third was the son of a lady health worker, he told the participants.
Syed Hasim Raza Zaidi urged the local and international experts to come up with concrete suggestions to readdress the issue and added that malnourishment among children would also have to be addressed on strong footing along with water-borne diseases among children.
The provincial secretary also regretted decline in the routine immunization coverage rates in the province despite significant presence of private medical practitioners. He expressed the hope that professional bodies like Pakistan Medical Association, Pakistan Islamic Medical Association, Pakistan Pediatric Association and College of Family Physicians would assist the government in improving vaccine coverage in the country.
Dr Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, Chair, Division of Women and Child Health, AKU, highlighted that every year over 150,000 children die of vaccine-preventable illnesses.
“Parents may not be vaccinating their children for a variety of reasons i.e. poverty, low rate of female literacy, poor environmental hygiene and living conditions,” said Dr Bhutta.
Stressing the need for partnerships, he said key issues such as governance and accountability within the national vaccination program need to be addressed alongside the fundamental issues of integrating routine immunizations and polio vaccination with effective basic healthcare services.
Dr Farhat Abbas, Dean Medical College, AKU, said participation from the government agencies, private sector and civil society was required to address the large task of immunizing every child under the age of five in a populous country like Pakistan.
“Pakistan is one of the four countries of the world where the number of polio-affected children is increasing,” said Dr Sardar Talat Mahmud, Senior Advisor Health, USAID, Pakistan.
“Even though polio eradication efforts started in the 1990s, cases of polio are still appearing. USAID had spent US$ 24million in the last few years for strengthening immunization in children, and there are plans to spend another US$ 20 million on future program,” he maintained.
Expressing hope for the future, Dr Andro Shilakadze, UNICEF’s Sindh chief pointed out that “all of us should be focused on how we can collectively work for the eradication of polio in Pakistan”.
He warned that the country has two years to achieve its target of polio eradication and that the failure on this count would send a wrong message about the capacities to attain public interest goals.
Dr Nima Saeed Abdi, the WHO representative associated with polio eradication efforts in Pakistan, said that the federal Ministry of Health has designed special action plans but added that there was the need for efficient implementation of these plans.