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June 5, 2019

With rising cases, question mark hangs over anti-polio efforts

National

June 5, 2019

PESHAWAR: Rising polio cases in Pakistan, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this year, is a question mark on the performance of national and international authorities who until now used to make tall claims of having almost eradicated the poliovirus from the country.

This year Pakistan has reported 21 polio cases, including 15 from KP.

Also, there was a short period of honeymoon for the Pakistani authorities to celebrate when World Health Organisation (WHO) last month reported that after incessant vaccination campaigns, the stubborn poliovirus in Peshawar was finally interrupted.

After a long gap of 1.5 years, the sewerage water environmental sample collected from Shaheen Muslim Town in Peshawar had shown no presence of wild poliovirus.

These sewage samples are collected and devaluated every month from 59 locations throughout the country.

This sample from Peshawar was collected on April 10, 2019. This success against polio virus was widely celebrated and everybody endeavoured to take its credit. The international organisations would only declare Peshawar a polio-free city if the samples collected from Shaheen Muslim Town don’t have poliovirus in sewage for three consecutive years.

And unfortunately, it didn’t happen, as the environmental sample collected last month was found with poliovirus.

Along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is one of the three countries where poliovirus still exists and continuously paralysing children across the country and particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

After poliovirus was detected in the environmental samples, Shaheen Muslim Town union council, Peshawar and particularly the 18 union councils in the provincial capital city will continue to pose a serious challenge for national and international organisations engaged in fighting the poliovirus.

According to authorities, the areas in Shaheen Muslim Town had become quite notorious for refusals based on religious misconception and propaganda against vaccination.

These 18 union councils famous for poliovirus and difficult places for polio workers are Akhoonabad, Bhanamari, Cantt Ward-5, Deh Bahadar, Dheri Baghbanan, Hazarkhwani-1, Hazarkhwani-II Kakshal-II, Landi Arbab, Nauthia Jadeed, Nauthia Qadeem, Shaheen Muslim Town-1, Shaheen Muslim Town-II, Sheikh Junaidabad, Wazir Bagh, Yakatoot-1, Yakatoot-II and Yakatoot-III.

In the past, samples were collected from the sewage of these union councils in Peshawar confirmed the presence of poliovirus. And thus it is the polio workers who face the blame, particularly female workers.

Their contribution in the fight against polio has always been tremendous but they are never given a reward of their heroic effort.

A number of poor female workers lost their lives, particularly after the Abbottabad operation by the CIA that used the cover of fake vaccination to trace Osama bin Laden and his family there.

And it was after this incident that polio programme in Pakistan was made controversial and people, particularly religious circles, started making it more suspicious through their baseless allegations against the vaccines.

Many officials claim that the Abbottabad operation was a turning point that made the polio programme controversial as, after that, some of the religious circles publicly announced their opposition to the vaccination campaign.

Clearly, several determined efforts led by immunisation teams in countering the anti-polio propaganda have gone to waste in Pakistan.

Back in 2014, Imam-e-Ka’aba Sheikh Abdur Rehman al Sudais was invited to Pakistan as part of the government’s efforts to address misconceptions about the polio vaccine.

Additionally, renowned Islamic scholars gave fatwas in favour of the vaccine, but it didn’t help accordingly.

Despite these efforts, polio workers have remained vulnerable, and, according to official data, 97 people, majority of the female health workers and members of the law-enforcement agencies, have been gunned down in attacks on polio teams ever since the Abbottabad operation.

In KP, Bannu division alone has reported 11 cases of the total 21 polio cases from across the country in the current year.

“Parents are requested to avoid the propaganda against polio vaccine and vaccinate their children” said the PM’s Focal Person on Polio Babar bin Atta, adding that considering the situation immediately after Eid-ul-Fitar, a special polio campaign is scheduled in Bannu division.

In 11 cases, 7 cases were from Bannu district and 4 from North Waziristan tribal district, according to a National Emergency Operation Centre Peshawar. There is no cure for poliovirus, and immunization to children is the only viable solution. The polio vaccine has eliminated polio from the rest of the world.

“It is very important to vaccinate children in each campaign,” said Atta, adding: “The technical experts are of the view that if the circulation of poliovirus is not controlled, soon it will engulf the neighbouring divisions as well.”

In a recent incident, according to Provincial Health Minister Dr Hisham Inamullah Khan, 44,000 children were taken to hospitals in KP and 25,000 of them were shifted to the four hospitals in Peshawar when some of the people allegedly spread rumours against polio vaccination.

Later, the government formed a committee to probe complaints on the aftereffects of the polio vaccine. The committee concluded in a report that the panic and scare was pre-planned and based on rumours.

It noted that the principals of the two private schools, owned by a religious political party, first refused to allow polio workers to enter the schools to vaccinate schoolchildren and then started complaining that the vaccine had spread a reaction among the children. The government recently sealed 10 schools in Peshawar on charges of spreading rumours against polio vaccination.

The propaganda caused a huge loss to the anti-polio vaccination efforts in KP, as 11,00,000 children out of 16,00,000 in Peshawar alone have refused to be vaccinated in the latest round of the vaccination drive, said an official of KP Health Department.

Out of 1.8 million children in Peshawar, 800,000 were from zero to five years while the remaining were between five and 10 years.

According to government officials, the biggest challenge to them is now reaching out to the children, followed by the security of the polio workers, as certain elements are still operating out there to malign the polio vaccine.

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