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June 18, 2019

Another child gets polio as special vaccination drive starts


June 18, 2019

Islamabad: Yet another child in Pakistan was crippled by polio on Monday, which also marked the first day of a special vaccination campaign targeting over 10.25 million eligible children in core reservoirs. This is Pakistan’s 24th polio case so far in 2019—a year in which the target of zero poliovirus transmission has been reduced to no more than a delusion.

There has been a persistent increase in the number of polio cases and positive sewage samples ever since the PTI government assumed power. Data available with this scribe show that up until mid-2018, there was only one outbreak in Dukki that added three cases to the national case count, with only 10 per cent of the tested sewage samples indicating the presence of poliovirus. Genetic diversity of isolated virus also indicated that the virus was dying out forever.

The tempo was then lost, with cases adding up in quick succession and poliovirus transmission transcending traditional high-risk boundaries. Polio eradication was a national priority no more; the sense of collective responsibility that enabled Pakistan to inch closer to zero transmission over the past few decades faded away, only to be replaced with dissemination of conflicting messages to Deputy Commissioners and tough handling of communities.

The results were counter-productive; negative propaganda harmed the vaccination campaign like never in the past as the PTI government grappled with a virus fighting back to cripple more and more children. Just then, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication Babar Bin Atta announced that “for the first time in the country’s history, FIRs will no more be registered against parents refusing administration of polio drops to their children in Bannu.” Terming the announcement as “the first step in New Pakistan’s journey of change,” he said, “we want to win parents over and not administer polio drops by force.” Even though the realisation was rather belated, one can only hope that it will dismiss the high level of community resistance to the vaccine.

Pakistan has reported 33 polio cases (9 in the last five months of 2018 and 24 in 2019 to date) ever since the latest political transition in the country. According to sources, 50% of the sewage samples are now showing virus presence—a crisis situation that warrants serious brainstorming to get the polio programme back of track. Of the 24 cases reported this year, three have been confirmed from Punjab (all three from Lahore); three from Sindh (one each from Lyari, Larkana and Gulshan-e-Iqbal), 18 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (8 from Bannu, one each from Hangu, D I Khan, Shangla; one each from Khyber and Bajour Agencies; and 5 from North Waziristan).

The latest victim of the disease is a 17 month-old child from Bannu, which has become one of the most conspicuous districts with 8 polio cases so far this year. The child belongs to a poor family with no vaccination history; he has had zero routine immunisation doses, and is a refusal case with both lower limbs affected.

While the PM’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication has predicted that the number of polio cases in the country this year may well cross 50, the future generations of Pakistan and across the world are looking towards our political leadership to rise above their differences to secure a polio-free world for them. After all, no child in any part of the world can be assumed as being safe from polio unless every child around the globe is immunized and protected, and the virus completely eliminated.

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