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January 5, 2019

Getting rid of polio


January 5, 2019

With a new government promising a brand new Pakistan, the question is whether we will be able to finally eliminate polio from the country. Minister for Planning Khusro Bakhtiar has stepped up and made the bold promise to eliminate polio from Pakistan by 2019. Such promises have been made before but Pakistan remains one of the only two countries in the world where polio exists. This is despite billions being poured into the National Polio Eradication programme and multiple polio vaccination drives organised in the country each year.

Our polio eradication campaigns – and campaigners – continue to face challenges that they do not in other countries. The threat of terrorism still looms over every polio eradication campaign in the country as malicious propaganda against these drives remains a part of what polio vaccinators have to deal with when in the field. The government’s top planning body, the Central Development Working Party (CDWP), has approved a revision of Pakistan’s $968 million polio eradication programme. The revisions are over the last one-third of the programme which is expected to continue until 2021. The committee expects that the plan will lead to the elimination of polio by the end of this year, while it would need around two more years of follow-up programmes to ensure the country is polio-free.

The trouble is that polio eradication efforts in Pakistan are mostly funded by international agencies. Additional finance by the Pakistani government seems to be limited at best. As it stands, the current government’s plan is simply to implement the ongoing strategy for one more year and see whether it gets lucky. As many as 745 cases of polio were reported in 2018, which gives very little hope of eliminating the disease soon. The good news is that polio cases are said to be falling in the country, although it is still unclear on what figures the EPI has been claiming a 99 percent reduction in polio cases this year. One of the key issues that polio officials continue to point to is that the polio vaccine requires healthy children to work. The high rates of child malnutrition, combined with the debilitating impact of diarrhoea and cholera, results in many doses of polio vaccine going to waste. Equally important is ensuring access to clean water, since the polio virus is known to find refuge in filthy water supplies. Will 2019 be the year Pakistan becomes polio-free? In order to ensure that, the PTI government will have to do far more than just revise the existing polio eradication programme.

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