Pakistan is one of only two countries where polio remains endemic, primarily due to the failure of vaccination drives
World Polio Day is observed every October 24 to call on states and national governments to stay vigilant in their fight against the disease. According to the WHO data, poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99.9 per cent due to vaccination efforts around the world. The Rotary International established World Polio Day over a decade ago to commemorate the birth of Jonas Salk, who led the first team to develop a vaccine against the disease.
In areas with poor sanitation, the poliovirus quickly spreads through excrements into the water supply or food chain. There is no cure for polio disease, but vaccine allows the body to fight off the virus.
The theme for this year is Polio Eradication, along with a focus on the current Covid-19 threat. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) aim is to eradicate polio completely.
The viral disease affects the nervous system and can cause severe damage. The virus stays in the intestines before spreading to other areas of the body. Eventually, it moves into the bloodstream and can spread to the entire body. Anyone who has not been immunised against polio is especially susceptible to contracting the infection.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), led by national governments and the WHO, has been monitoring the disease situation globally. On June 10, the GPEI launched the Polio Eradication Strategy 2022-2026, delivering on a promise at a virtual event to overcome the remaining challenges to ending polio, including setbacks caused by Covid-19.
Polio eradication has been a top health priority. Pakistan is committed to fully implementing the GPEI strategy and is looking forward to working with international partners to achieve a polio-free world.
However, attacks on polio workers, misinformation and parental reluctance have caused many setbacks in vaccination drives. Even if Pakistan is 100 per cent polio-free, the vaccination will have to continue for those under five years of age.
Pakistan is one of only two countries in the world with circulating wild poliovirus, the other being Afghanistan. The country has made significant progress towards stopping poliovirus transmission. The third nationwide polio campaign for 2021 started in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on September 17 and on September 20 for the rest of the country. Over 40 million children under five years of age were vaccinated and given a supplementary dose of Vitamin A during the campaign. More than 290,000 Sehat Tahafuz frontline workers were part of the home visit teams. The prime minister recently met with the district commissioners of the twenty high-risk areas and directed them to double their efforts to eradicate polio. The programme has made significant gains, with no case reported in the first seven months of this year.
Several factors make eradication of polio from Pakistan difficult. Particularly in the Tribal Areas, the ongoing conflict in the region and the movement of refugees from Afghanistan, internally displaced people from the northern tribal areas, the movement of seasonal workers across the country, misconceptions among the population against the polio vaccine and aggression towards polio workers are significant hindrances. These factors threaten the effectiveness of Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts.
The biggest threat to eradicating polio from the country is the attacks on polio workers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Baluchistan.
Some militant groups are spreading false information, attacking health workers and dissuading the general public in remote areas from letting their children being vaccinated.
In telephonic conversation with Bill Gates, the prime minister, said the country has reported only one case of wild poliovirus this year. Bill Gates pledged his continued support to Pakistan’s polio programme for ensuring that no child in the country is at risk of paralysis due to poliovirus.
The prime minister and Bill Gates expressed concern regarding the health system in Afghanistan. They discussed the importance of resumption of polio campaigns in Afghanistan to stop the disease and protect Pakistan’s recent gains towards ending polio. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries in the world where polio cases are still reported.
Recently, unknown assailants shot dead a police constable guarding polio vaccine workers in northwest Pakistan, where a five-day immunisation campaign was under way. Another attack happened in Dhal Behzadi village in Kohat. Some militant groups have threatened polio workers to stop their campaigns in Waziristan.
There is a need for incisive policymaking and providing proper security to polio workers. A strong media campaign is also needed to motivate communities to develop a pro-vaccine mindset.
The writer is a freelance journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com