Monday May 29, 2023

The polio challenge

June 06, 2022

A disease that was this close to being completely wiped out from the country has made a tragic return – simply because of the conspiracy theories surrounding a most basic, yet completely necessary, vaccination. Pakistan had been able to keep the polio virus under better control over the past two years, with only one case having been reported all of 2021. This year, though, has already reported eight cases of the virus – all from North Waziristan, but with officials saying that all southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remain high-risk areas. That matters have unraveled this rapidly should not be a surprise. Polio spreads very quickly and as the number of unvaccinated children increases, the virus cannot be contained. And, as much as we may gnash our teeth about the lack of funding and insufficient government will, the fact remains that the problem is mainly one of deeply embedded paranoia as well as security. Polio workers and the policemen guarding them continue to be killed as they trudge through dangerous terrain and adverse weather conditions to ensure that every child in the country is administered the polio vaccination. In return, they receive meagre pay and face the daily possibility that they will be targeted.

The International Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has noted that the country has a great deal to do to ensure it wins its ongoing battle against polio, which has been disrupted due to overlooked children, children who have been missed altogether, refusals by parents to have children vaccinated and social media campaigns which suggest that the vaccine is somehow dangerous or injurious. But there is also another problem. The IMB has also pointed out that successive governments continuously change policies resulting in the lack of a continuous method to deal with the virus. This obviously hurts efforts and makes it difficult to devise policies. The IMB has noted that the PTI government, when it came to power in 2018, altered the previous mode of dealing with polio resulting in a large number of cases in 2018 and 2019. It has warned that this failure to keep a consistent policy is harmful to the effort to eradicate polio.

The current government has set a five-year plan for eradicating the disease and the second nationwide anti-polio campaign was organized in the last week of May. No plan, though, will achieve the 100 per cent vaccination rate we so badly need – unless there is also an effort at cultural and political change, drowning out the voices of those who spread conspiracy theories about polio vaccination. Pakistan remains one of the only two countries in the world still endemic to polio. The fight against polio is dependent on a consistent approach by governments and no change in policies that have been worked out successfully over a period of years. Frequent changes in strategy hurt the campaigns as do the security attacks on polio vaccinators and those protecting them. All these factors have to be looked into and we can only hope that the government in place for an indefinite period will carry forward the policy already in place so that the number of cases at the very least does not rise further this year. The reemergence of this entirely preventable disease should be a cause for eternal shame. In this final push to eradicate polio, we may need to vaccinate fewer people than before but the ones left are those who may be most difficult to find and persuade. Yet just about every other country in the world has managed – and there is no justification for us being left behind.