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Friday June 21, 2024

Polio programme chief to be replaced after virus resurgence: officials

Wild poliovirus is spreading rapidly in Pakistan, with 153 environmental samples testing positive in 39 districts

By M Waqar Bhatti
May 31, 2024
This undated handout photo, released by the Associated Press of Pakistan on May 5, 2024, shows Dr Shahzad Baig, the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme’s national coordinator, at his office at the Prime Minister’s Health Complex in Islamabad. — APP
This undated handout photo, released by the Associated Press of Pakistan on May 5, 2024, shows Dr Shahzad Baig, the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme’s national coordinator, at his office at the Prime Minister’s Health Complex in Islamabad. — APP

ISLAMABAD: Perturbed by the resurgence of poliovirus across Pakistan in the last two years, authorities have finally decided to replace the current polio programme chief with a bureaucrat who will lead the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) for polio, officials confirmed on Thursday.

“Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has decided to replace the incumbent National Coordinator of the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), Dr Shahzad Baig, with a government official of BPS 21 or above to lead the operational side of polio eradication initiative following resurgence of poliovirus in recent years,” an official of the National Health Services, Regulations, and Coordination (NHS,R&C) told The News. According to officials, the wild poliovirus is spreading rapidly in Pakistan, with 153 environmental samples testing positive for polio in 39 districts so far. In 2023, 126 environmental samples tested positive for poliovirus in 28 districts. The NHS official mentioned that a notification regarding the appointment of a new national coordinator is expected soon, claiming that even the partner organisations, which previously supported the incumbent National Coordinator for the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), have agreed on his replacement with a government official.

“Actually, Dr Shahzad Baig is not a Government of Pakistan employee, which led to coordination issues that derailed the polio programme. Provincial coordinators and other senior government officials had complaints about him, and some even sent letters to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif against him,” the official further claimed. He further said that initially, the Prime Minister’s National Coordinator on Health, Dr Mukhtar Ahmed Bharath, had proposed retaining the current NEOC Coordinator, Dr Shahzad Baig, for two provinces and requested the PM to appoint a senior government official to oversee the polio eradication initiative for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. However, this proposal was strongly resisted by partner organisations.

“Partner organisations have urged the PM’s Coordinator on Health to appoint a senior government official as the NEOC lead at the earliest, as the high transmission season is approaching, and immediate efforts are required to contain the spread of poliovirus, which is now circulating across Pakistan,” the official added. The NHS official maintained that Dr Shahzad Baig could continue as a technical advisor for the polio programme at his own discretion, but administrative decisions would now be made by an official appointed by the Government of Pakistan. When approached, Dr Shahzad Baig confirmed that he was aware of the government’s decision to replace him with a bureaucrat, adding that he had been advised to resign from his position. Regarding the increasing number of positive environmental samples in the country, Dr Baig claimed that they had increased the surveillance sites for collecting samples from 900 to 3,000, which has led to detection of more poliovirus in the environment.