Grappling with polio threat
Participating in a media workshop in Karachi the other day on healthcare issues of children, a senior official of the Expanded Programme of Immunisation in Sindh confirmed that polio remains a clear and present threat in the country. Although, the official expressed satisfaction that Sindh had only three reported cases of polio since the beginning of the current year, her subsequent comments included quite worrisome information. The overall number thus far, she disclosed, stands at 22. And that considering the past pattern, which shows almost half of polio cases occur during July-October period, this number is likely to rise considerably in the next four months. That means unless intensive efforts are made Pakistan will remain, for some time to come, in the unenviable position of being at the top of a list of three polio endemic countries - the other two being Afghanistan and Nigeria. According to experts, persistent transmission of the poliovirus is localised in three high-risk towns of Karachi - Gadap, Baldia and Gulshan-e-Iqbal - parts of Quetta district and Fata. It is sad, indeed, that a metropolitan centre like Karachi should be such a high-risk place. The reasons seem to be negligence on the part of the city's civic authorities, and/or laxity in the manner immunisation drives are carried out. The same may be the case in the affected areas of Quetta district. For, as the immunisation programme official pointed out, the main cause of poliovirus transmission are sewerage and drinking water. Besides, supplemental doses, in addition to the three routine immunisation doses, are necessary to ensure that a child is protected against polio. The more serious challenge polio immunisation programme faces is local resistance in Fata, especially in North Waziristan. Reports say polio vaccination had not made any headway in the agency this year. However, health officials claim that in 68 of its 74 areas most children have already been immunised except for 1,100 whose families resisted and another 17,000 who remained inaccessible in six Taliban-controlled areas. It is pertinent to recall here that for a while people in the tribal areas, even in some settled parts of KP, have been resisting vaccination because of a rumour that it was a conspiracy by the Western countries aimed at rendering their children infertile. More recently, a North Waziristan militant leader, Hafiz Gul Bahadar, announced vaccination drives would not be allowed unless drone attacks stop. As absurd as this argument is, there may still be room for persuasion. It is good to note that the federal government has directed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor to talk to the Taliban with the help of the agency's political agent. Hopefully, good sense will prevail and the militant leader will realise that those carrying out drone strikes have nothing to gain from polio vaccination campaign and that the children of his own area a lot to lose due to the ban.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2012