Saturday December 04, 2021

Polio-free world

October 24, 2021

A globe that is now virtually free of polio, due to the vaccine developed by American virologist Dr Jonas Salk in 1955, is marking World Polio Day today. The decision by Salk not to patent his vaccine and make it available to as many as possible is also a reflection on why so many nations have been able to free themselves of a disease that over the decades has crippled millions and destroyed the lives of entire families. Salk won a Nobel Prize for his discovery, and the vaccine revolutionised the treatment of a disease that had affected thousands of children in nations around the world every year, killing some and condemning others to live within a machine called an iron lung, which provided them the ability to breathe since they could not do so on their own. Others were forced to use calipers or special boots to enable them to walk at least to some degree. Much of the world now sees no polio at all.

Sadly, this is not true of Pakistan, and its neighbour Afghanistan, the only two countries in the world which are still endemic for polio. But Pakistan has shown some signs that it is improving on its performance compared to 2020 and 2019. In 2020 as many as 84 cases of polio were reported through the year, with the Covid-19 crisis also affecting the the work of vaccine teams as did the security situation, which has marred efforts to eradicate the disease time and time again, as extremists target vaccinators or those protecting them mainly on the basis of completely falsified rumours suggesting that polio will harm children or render them infertile and is as such a Western conspiracy. In 2021, Pakistan has recorded eight cases so far, although this may grow by the end of the year. This year too Covid and security created problems with vaccination but efforts were made to overcome this and deliver the drops that can save lives and save futures to as many children as possible.

Pakistan hopes it will soon be able to celebrate a polio-free existence alongside the majority of countries in the world. To do so, it must deal not only with security and the perception that the polio drops delivered from door to door can cause harm, but also with administrative problems and loopholes which result in thousands of children being left uncovered and not protected against the disease. These flaws need to be looked into and we need a continued campaign to educate parents about the urgent need to ensure children under five are given the drops in a country where the polio virus has continued to live on.