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October 20, 2019

Planning against polio


October 20, 2019

The PM’s Focal Person on Polio Babar bin Atta has resigned almost precisely after a year in office citing personal reasons for his decision. Regardless of the reasons for Atta’s exit, and there is speculation on these, the priority for Pakistan is to look at its polio programme and determine what it must do to put it back on track. This year, 72 cases have been reported from the country from 10 to 12 during the previous year and even fewer in the year before that. The dramatic rise in cases, which have been reported from all the four provinces, is not encouraging for Pakistan. We had appeared to be close to moving off the very short list of polio-endemic countries, but the problems faced in recent months mean Pakistan continues to stand with Nigeria and Afghanistan as a country where polio is endemic.

In the past, fake news reports over social media and refusals by parents to allow their children to be vaccinated had been blamed for the problem. However, we need to understand why the number of refusals should have grown so sharply in a year’s time. Reports by experts suggest that the fears expressed by parents are not always illogical and need to be dealt with by creating awareness, knowledge and an acceptance that the polio vaccine can prevent their child from being disabled for life. These experts, who include WHO representatives working with field staff in Pakistan, say that policies suggested in the past, such as those of arresting parents or filing FIRs against them if their refuse to vaccinate their child have been counterproductive and have in fact created greater hostility to the government’s drive. It is however true that refusals are a problem even in major cities and need to be made a part of any anti-polio strategy.

Apart from refusals, it is also true there have been administrative loopholes and flaws in the polio programme which need to be looked into. Until these problems are solved, polio will not be removed from Pakistan despite the multiple campaigns carried out each year. The next one is due to begin in a few weeks. To counter the anti-polio messages, people with influence including councillors, clerics, tribal chiefs, doctors and teachers all need to be included in the team so that the right message goes out and people across Pakistan can be united in the desire to drive out a potentially fatal disease.

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