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June 22, 2014

The measles crisis

 
June 22, 2014

As if the polio epidemic that is rapidly making us a pariah in the international community wasn’t bad enough, we are now in the midst of a measles crisis. Nearly 20 children have died from the disease this year, a gradual increase from previous years, and, as with polio, all children need to be vaccinated to prevent another epidemic. That may no longer be possible. With many, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, already mistrustful of vaccines, the deaths of four children and the hospitalisation of over a dozen others in Peshawar after being given a faulty measles vaccine will only increase suspicion. Three health workers are going to be charged for intentional murder but the damage may already be done. Propaganda against vaccines holds that they are a western plot to leave our children barren. Suspicion increased when Dr Shakeel Afridi was revealed to have been running a fake hepatitis vaccination programme for the CIA to help in its search for Osama bin Laden. Now with deaths that can be linked to a vaccine, and that too a vaccine purchased from India, our public health goals will be that much harder to achieve. Those responsible for the deaths should of course be held responsible but it will now become very difficult to contain the damage they have caused.
It is estimated that over 50 percent of children in the country are not vaccinated against any disease. With the rapid spread of polio in the country – there have already been more than 80 confirmed cases this year alone – we have already seen the effects of refusing vaccinations. Measles will be no different, as it can spread just as rapidly. There is little the World Health Organisation has been able to do since vaccinators are routinely targeted by militants and many parents flatly refuse to vaccinate their children. Money spent on education and awareness programmes has done little good. Now being able to point to actual deaths caused by a vaccine will make the job that much harder. Apart from

showing that it will punish the guilty parties, the government will have to become innovative in forcing children to receive vaccinations. It may have to institute coercive measures like only allowing children to be enrolled in school if they have received their vaccinations or delay giving birth certificates until children have been vaccinated. None of these are ideal solutions but the problem has now reached a crisis state - with our own mistakes having contributed to the emergency.