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EDITORIAL: Just as Pakistan was about to eliminate the poliovirus, new cases have emerged to cause a setback to the effort. The latest victim is a seven-month-old baby girl in North Waziristan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). That brings the total number of reported cases during the recent months to seven, all of them in the same area, making it look like a hotspot of the virus.

That has increased the risk for other adjoining districts, such as South Waziristan, Tank, Lakki Marwat, and Bannu. In fact, a few months earlier, two environmental samples taken from Bannu showed the presence of wild poliovirus there. According to Federal Health Minister Qadir Patel, the “outbreak” in North Waziristan seems to be following a pattern seen in 2014, and 2019 when polio cases surged in the same area.

The fight against polio made significant progress during the recent years after millions of children were vaccinated. The second immunization campaign launched this year was coordinated with a similar drive in Afghanistan - the only other country where polio is endemic—as movement of people across the border areas is part of everyday life. On this side, as many as 43 million children under the age of five were given polio drops.

And to to stop the spread of the virus from the affected areas, as per official claims, children up to age of 10 were vaccinated at entry and exit points of southern districts of KP. Yet, it continues to take its toll because of community resistance.

All the new cases are being reported from the same area due to a high refusal rate. Reports also speak of some health workers marking the unvaccinated children with ink as an evidence of their job done. They may be shirking duty either out of fear since many vaccinators and their police escorts have been killed, or lack of a sense of responsibility.

The result is a disquieting incidence of the debilitating disease, putting other children to risk of catching the infection, and the country getting the unsavoury distinction of being one of the two countries where polio is still prevalent.

In its report released a few days ago, the International Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative shines a light on what has gone wrong. Raising the issue of “still missed children”, it links the rise in polio cases with “unwanted” changes made by the previous government in the polio eradication programme.

Despite the unequivocal statements of cross-party support given to the IMB in early 2018, it says, these promises were not honored, continuity was seriously disrupted, and changes were made that did not work, with the result that polio cases erupted during 2019 and 2020.

The report urges the new government to ensure continuity of approach and put in place measures that replicate key features of the previous arrangement; otherwise polio could make a return on a larger scale. Reoccurring cases in North Waziristan underscore the need to reinstate those measures.

According to Coordinator of the National Polio Eradication Programme, efforts have been intensified to address the challenges related to vaccine hesitancy through community engagement and service delivery – which should include better sanitation—to counter the emergence of new polio cases. Hopefully, that will happen before polio becomes a bigger problem.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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