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August 6, 2019

Eradicating polio — it’s now or never

Lahore

August 6, 2019

At the Rotary International Annual Convention in Hamburg in the first week of June, attended by some 25,000 people, including this writer, as Coca-Cola is a major partner of Rotary Pakistan for its End Polio Now campaign, the principal topic was the eradication of polio. This is the level of international importance being given internationally to the final eradication of this crippling disease. Needless to say, Pakistan got mentioned several times over the 5 days of the conference.

During the Q&A time slot at the end of one of the breakout sessions, something quite unexpected happened that caused quite a stir. A person in the audience got up and opined that Rotary should stop working for the global polio eradication effort, and instead focus on fighting other globally widespread diseases that are impacting millions of people. For a moment the entire audience and all the speakers at the head table were totally taken aback. Then several in the audience protested at this proposition with loud ‘no’s’. Then before the session anchor or any of the speakers could react, another member of the audience took the floor microphone and responded to the objector thus: yes, millions in the world suffer from diseases ranging from malaria to gastroenteritis, causing death, again of millions. Yes, these diseases need to be fought. But to stop the end polio effort today would not only be very stupid, it will also be a crime against humanity; after over 30 years of tireless effort, after reducing it from a disease prevailing worldwide to occurring in just two countries today, and after reducing the number of cases from several hundred thousand to less than a hundred.

And this is precisely the reason why we in Pakistan need to get re-energized, rethink the strategy, make bold changes and decisions as required, and resolve that in spite of the recent resurgence, Pakistan will end polio next year. Period. Very sadly and alarmingly though, after several years of progressively reducing the number of new cases every year, we are today seeing a sharp increase in the number of cases. There were only eight cases two years back, and then 12 last year, and now, already 37 cases this year.

Experts ascribe this resurgence to several factors. Increased refusals by parents for administration of the polio drops to their children is one leading factor, with the refusals apparently based majorly on a conviction that the polio drops contain infertility causing medication, and are a Western conspiracy against us. There are other factors too, like the inability to administer the drops to our entire population owing to security and other issues and the alleged administration in some cases of expired vaccines. And as opined by Mr. Babar Bin Atta, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication in a recent op-ed article, “the problem lies in the fudged data reports from the field regarding the number of children who were missed during the vaccination campaigns.”

The spread of the polio virus gets exponentially boosted by poor sanitation. So while the authorities have been working on the massive effort needed to administer polio drops to tens of millions of children several times every year, Coca-Cola, under its CSR strategy umbrella has been working with Rotary Pakistan to address issues of public education, supply of clean drinking water and sanitation.

It is to be noted that Rotary International, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF first launched the global effort back in 1988, to eradicate polio. Since then Rotarians have contributed more than a billion dollars to the cause, while many others, notably the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have also given grants of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Coca-Cola’s support to Rotary started as far back as 2010, and has continued ever since. It has covered public education through developing and disseminating communication materials, highlighting the polio message through billboards and other tools, and most importantly, through the installation of several solar-powered water filtration plants in polio high-risk areas, to provide safe drinking water to the local communities. This last intervention has benefits beyond only being a contribution to the larger polio eradication effort, as clean drinking water also means a substantial reduction in the occurrence of other water-borne diseases like diarrhea and gastroenteritis. For example, results monitored from the very first installation in a low-income area of Malir in Karachi showed a reduction in water-borne diseases of up to 75 percent.

Our contribution to the polio eradication global campaign may be a humble part of the much larger war against polio. But beyond any doubt, every contribution and every effort matters, and especially now more than ever when the disease is rapidly resurging. More than anything I would really like to attend the Rotary Annual Convention a year from now and hear the good news that polio has been eradicated from Pakistan.

(The writer is Director Public Affairs & Communications, Coca-Cola Pakistan)

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