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December 26, 2018

The polio challenge


December 26, 2018

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries in the world where polio is yet to be eradicated. Pakistan has made some impressive progress in the past few years in its fight to eradicate polio. The vaccination rate for children is close to 95 percent and new cases of polio have significantly dropped since the time when there was talk of travel bans to contain the spread of the virus to the rest of the world. But the one thing that cannot be allowed in the battle against a disease as dangerous as polio is complacency. The fight is far from over as we begin what is meant to be the last nationwide vaccination campaign. This year, three new cases of polio have been discovered from Karachi, Gadap and the Khyber tribal district and the virus has been detected in the sewage of seven cities in all provinces of the country.

The resurgence of polio in the country was entirely down to a failure to achieve herd immunity by vaccinating close to all children in the country. This was partly due to the propaganda of militant groups, such as that of Maulana Fazlullah in Swat who used his pirate radio station to claim that polio vaccinations were a Western plot to make our children infertile. There was also a question of access in remote parts of the country and a reluctance on the part of parents to get their children vaccinated.

Being a polio vaccinator is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Dozens of polio workers have been killed in targeted attacks. At the same time, when workers are surrounded by security personnel it can be difficult to win the trust of the parents whose children you need to vaccinate. There have been reports of mothers allowing their children to be vaccinated but refusing to let polio workers mark their children as proof that they have received the vaccination. This can make it difficult to correctly tabulate what percentage of the population has been vaccinated. In a few cases, there have also been allegations of fraud where children are said to have been vaccinated even though they never were. In this final push to eradicate polio, we may need to vaccinate fewer people than before but the ones left are those who will be most difficult to find and persuade. Yet just about every other country in the world has managed and there is no justification for Pakistan being left behind.

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