Polio-free Pakistan?

Editorial Board
Tuesday, Dec 06, 2022

After years of disappointment on the polio front, at last there is some hope for its eradication in Pakistan. A senior Unicef official has said that the polio programme in Pakistan is back on track. With this news, there are renewed expectations that the crippling disease could finally be eradicated in the country by the end of 2023. The poliovirus mainly targets children aged under five by entering their nervous system and causing paralysis that in some cases may even lead to death. Once infected, the child is nearly incurable and the vaccination is effective only before the virus attacks. For Pakistan, protecting its children from this disease is of utmost importance as the country’s teeming population adds millions of newborn babies into its tally.

Though we have been hearing news about the virus being under control for many years now, complete eradication has not taken place. In fact, a disease that was on its way out – with just one case reported in 2021 – has seen an alarming onslaught of new cases this year: 20 new cases having been reported since April. The government of Pakistan needs to tackle this on a war-footing, regardless of how hopeful Unicef sounds. We need to be able to reach each and every child in the country. Not doing so puts all children at risk. The administration of the polio vaccine is a lifesaving exercise and the disease itself is fairly preventable. It is for this reason that every year over 300,000 health workers traverse vast areas of the country to administer doses of the vaccine but their security has remained a major concern. This is a major challenge that only the government and state institutions can surmount. Attacks on polio teams and their guards have hampered the efforts to eliminate the virus completely. Some parts of Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to such attacks but still the courage of polio teams and their guards is commendable.

The national immunization programme that has been running successfully for many years now has produced marvelous results but still falls short of a polio-free Pakistan. This year the efforts have to be even more ambitious as the country has experienced droughts and floods on an unprecedented scale, displacing millions of people across the provinces of Pakistan. Natural calamities are also compounded by acts of violence that put millions of children at risk of missing the vaccines. In the absence of basic health facilities that have been swept away, it becomes even more challenging to reach every child in the country. The number of calamity-hit districts is large and even larger is the number of vulnerable children that the health sector has failed to provide immunization to. One hopes the Unicef prediction is right, but complacency is not going to get us there.