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January 6, 2020

The polio battle


January 6, 2020

Pakistan is now truly trapped in possibly the worst polio crisis it has ever faced. After coming close to almost eradicating the disease a few years ago, with only 12 cases reported in 2018, in the first few days of January this year six to seven more cases were reported from across the country raising the total cases in 2019 to 123 (since the ones discovered the past few days were contracted last year). Five cases occurred in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province worst hit by the new polio epidemic, and two from Sindh. This is not a matter that Pakistan can continue to ignore. A government spokesman has said that a new anti-polio drive will be carried out in January. The attempted drive in April last year had to be suspended after a social media campaign had suggested that children in KP had fallen seriously ill after receiving the drops. This fake news led to a calling off of the campaign.

We need to question however if the social media efforts to sabotage the drive against polio are sufficient reason for a gigantic failure. The WHO has warned that travel restrictions may be imposed on Pakistan given the extent of the polio virus’s hold on the country and unless other measures are considered to tackle the problem. Pakistan has the highest rate of polio. In Afghanistan, the only other endemic country, around two dozen cases have been reported for 2019.

This crisis needs to be taken up with urgency and placed at the top of the government priority list. There are indications that this has not always happened. The former PM’s focal person on polio resigned in October last year citing personal reasons. There were however reports that there had been complaints – which were initially ignored – about the way things were being handled. Regardless of any and all politics, we simply cannot afford to take any risk with polio or neglect to pay attention to the voices of experts. Clearly the various agencies involved with the drive against polio in Pakistan had almost succeeded in the year before 2019. The return of the disease does not reflect well on us. Nearly all the victims are small children who will now be disabled for life. The matter needs to be raised to the level of a national emergency. There have been obvious failures and mistakes. Unless these are amended, the problem will grow worse. All provincial governments – and the federal government – need to make sure they get on this with the seriousness this issue demands. This is about the future of our children.

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