Polio on the rise

April 5, 2020

Thirty-six new cases have emerged in the first quarter of the year, most of them in KP

As many as 36 polio cases have been reported from across the country during the first quarter of the year, enough to ring alarm bells at the offices of top government functionaries, global bodies and authorities fighting to eradicate the disease from Pakistan. On March 14 alone, 13 polio cases were reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the highest from the province in a long time — seven of these were in Khyber tribal district, and one each from Lakki Marwat, Bannu, Mardan, Nowshera, Bajaur and Lower Dir.

Of the 36 reported cases, KP had the highest number, 18, followed by 12 in Sindh. There were five cases in Balochistan and one in the Punjab. In 2019, the146 reported cases had included 92 from the KP, 30 from Sindh and 12 each from the Punjab and Balochistan. No case has been reported in Azad Kashmir or Islamabad over the last five years. One case was reported from Gilgit-Baltistan in 2017.

The number of reported polio cases has increased since last year despite greater focus on effective campaigns and provision of huge contingents for security. There were only 12 cases reported in 2018, 8 in 2017, 20 in 2016 and 54 in 2015.

The coronavirus outbreak is the latest national public health crisis and the entire state machinery is now focused on tackling it. There is the fear that pressing health concerns like polio control might take a backseat and complicate things further. Ever since the lockdown, the healthcare system is under extreme pressure. Many thalassemia patients, for instance, are finding it more difficult to get blood transfusions.

The increase in the number of reported cases since last year is a big question mark on the performance of the local as well as international organisations running the polio vaccination campaigns for well over two decades. The religio-political figures, blamed in the past for the failure of the campaign, have recently endorsed the vaccination campaigns in their speeches, sermons, messages and fatwas. Some have even personally inaugurated vaccination drives.

Despite the upgraded security measures for polio workers, two female workers lost their lives in an attack on the campaign in Swabi in January.

“We have upgraded security for the polio campaigns in Swabi and other districts after the death of two female workers in an attack in January. The strength of policemen deployed for security of polio teams was increased from 560 to 1,360 to make sure every child is vaccinated in a secure environment. More nakabandis were made and town exits were properly manned during the campaigns,” Imran Shahid, the Swabi district police officer tells TNS.

According to DIG Kashif Alam, in charge of police operations in KP, police had managed to foil 13 of the 17 attacks on polio teams in KP over three years ahead of the Swabi attack. “Three policemen were martyred in these attacks while one polio worker sustained injuries. The security has been further upgraded all over KP after the January attack,” he says.

The writer is a former president of Khyber Union of Journalists and can be followed on Twitter @JavedAzizKhan

Polio on the rise in Pakistan