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October 19, 2019

PM’s Polio focal person resigns after ‘completing mission’

Islamabad

October 19, 2019

Islamabad :Quoting personal reasons, the Prime Minister’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication Babar Bin Atta submitted his resignation here Friday with the confidence of having accomplished the task assigned to him.

“I believe I have completed the mission handed over to me,” Babar has stated in his resignation to Prime Minister Imran Khan. “Being the only son of my parents, I have not been able to concentrate on the health of my ailing father and I don’t want to live the rest of my life regretting that I did not look after my parents when they needed me the most,” he states as an excuse for his exit.

Babar claims having “infused a new spirit into the polio programme.” In counting the initiatives completed during his term, he has referred to a 24/7 call centre that will be functional next week, the start of a Perception Management Initiative ahead of the upcoming campaign; and “a promised new structure that will deliver the last blow to polio virus and make Pakistan polio-free.”

The resignation letter assures the PM that the Pakistan Polio Programme is “completely ready” for the low transmission season that will begin in November 2018 and end in June 2020. “If the innovations and new reforms are fully implemented, Pakistan should record a reduction of over 100% in the number of cases next year. I firmly believe that Pakistan is, for the first time ever, rightly placed to interrupt poliovirus transmission by winters of 2020-2021,” he states.

Babar’s utopian portrayal of the state of polio eradication in Pakistan does not, however, match with the reality on ground. Pakistan has reported 85 cases of polio ever since the PTI government assumed charge; of these 9 cases were confirmed between August to December 2018 , and 76 in 2019 till date.

From highs to 306 in 2014, the One-Team Approach had brought polio cases to 54 in 2015, 20 in 2016, and only 8 in 2017. Till mid-2018, there was only one outbreak in Dukki that had given three cases.

As observed by the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on Polio Eradication, the biggest crisis at present is ‘One Team’ no more, and loss of the control and command system. It also maintained that instead of sticking to what delivered results, the programme started too many things and that too without any strategic direction.

The Emergency Committee of International Health Regulations recently termed the current programme management as being in shambles. It also expressed serious concerns on intensifying virus circulation within Pakistan and its exportations to Iran and Afghanistan. The IHR Committee flagged that “progress made in recent years appears to have reversed, with the committee’s assessment that the risk of international spread is at the highest point since 2014 when the PHEIC was declared.” This risk assessment was based on the following: WPV1 exportation in 2019 from Pakistan to Iran and to Afghanistan; ongoing rise in the number of WPV1 cases and positive environmental samples in Pakistan, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan; the urgent need to overhaul the programme in Pakistan, which although already commencing, will take some time to lead to more effective control of transmission and ultimately eradication; and increasing community and individual resistance.

Highlighting these concerns, the Committee noted that based on sequencing of viruses, there were new and recent instances of international spread of viruses from Pakistan to Afghanistan, in addition to the earlier reported exportation of virus to Iran (but without further transmission). The resumption of WPV1 international spread between Pakistan and Afghanistan suggests that rising transmission in Pakistan correlates with increasing risk of WPV1 exportation beyond the single epidemiological block formed by the two countries.

Ironically, this time around, the meeting of the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was attended by coordinators only, with the senior political and administrative leadership missing and the Federal and Provincial Secretaries completely out of the picture. The international community is said to have taken a strong exception to such non-serious handling of a global health issue that threatens to cripple children, not just in Pakistan but the world over.

The incumbent will have a tough task of restoring confidence of the teams on ground, winning the trust of communities on the vaccination programme, and regaining support of international partners.

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