Anti-polio vaccine workers are once again in the field as part of nation-wide efforts to eradicate the disease. Pakistan, which joined the nuclear states’ club in 1997, the year when the deadly virus affected 1,200 children in the country, is among the last three countries, besides Afghanistan and Nigeria, still unable to eradicate the disease entirely.
The first half of the last year had a bright outlook in terms of culling the virus, for only a few cases were reported. The second half, however, brought the number to 12. In the month of December, terrifying reports emerged of the presence of polio virus in the sewage samples collected from Quetta, Qila Abdullah and Pishin (Balochistan), Karachi (Sindh), Peshawar and Bannu (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Lahore and Rawalpindi (Punjab). Frantic drives were launched overnight to minimise the danger. Strain analysis states the virus is transmitted from western border hot-spots and Afghanistan to other parts of the country leaving accidental under-immunised children vulnerable.
In some cases, resistance from parents to the administration of the vaccine has also left children crippled forever. Last year, 400,000 children reportedly missed vaccinations in multiple drives. What is perhaps a slightly bright side of this dark picture is that the polio programme is under able hands, which maintain transparency and have been able to register a massive decline in polio cases.
Apart from the programme managers, the real heroes of the huge success, however, are the front-line polio workers who have braved terrorism, harsh weather, overworking, shamelessly low wages and social taboos to purge the country from polio virus. Since the launch of the first vaccination drive in 1994 when then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto administered the vaccine to her daughter Assefa Bhutto-Zardari, to till date these workers have written a shining chapter in the country’s history. In 1994, Pakistan saw 18,000 polio cases, and with the first drive, the number fell to 1,400, which was 12 in 2018. In the fresh drive, 260,000 workers are going door to door regardless of rain and snowfall. In some pockets, armed security guards have to accompany the workers. That is a tragedy. Militant outfits seem to have figured that polio is a big political and economic issue. They have been attacking workers for years only to damage Pakistan’s political and economic standing.
Parents’ cooperation is the most vital element to make the polio culling drives a success. Instigated by rumours and propaganda, several parents refuse to welcome polio teams at their doorsteps. Last month, polio teams saw a 25 per cent increase in vaccine refusals in Islamabad, and majority of the cases involved seemingly educated families. The government has engaged scholars, bloggers, social media managers, and opinion makers to stem the tide. But more efforts are needed in the polio virus-infested sections – Karachi, Quetta block (Quetta, Pishin and Qila Abdullah districts), Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Peshawar districts. In these pockets, certain clusters see polio vaccination abhorrent. All stakeholders, mostly the parents, need to realise that unless even a single child with polio virus is present in their surroundings, no child is safe from the virus. Collectives efforts are required to make 2019 a polio-free Pakistan. It is time to keep fingers crossed and chip in our share to make the polio virus history from Pakistan. *
Published in Daily Times, January 23rd 2019.