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EDITORIAL: Just when the poliovirus seemed to have been restricted to the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — since the start of 13 reported cases of polio have occurred in North Waziristan and one in Lakki Marwat — where the vaccine refusals rate is very high, the news from other areas brings no cheer.

Poliovirus has been detected in sewage samples collected between July 18-20 from Islamabad and Lahore (both cities were declared polio-free in March of last year) as well as Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Bannu, Nowshera and Swat.

Notably, sewerage water samples are collected on a monthly basis from 58 locations across the country under the supervision of provincial health authorities and tested in the Regional Polio Reference Laboratory at the National Institute of Health, Islamabad.

In a statement, he issued after environmental samples for the seven cities tested positive for the virus, Minister for National Health Services Abdul Qadir Patel, besides making the usual request to parents to ensure their children are vaccinated during every anti-polio campaign, sought much-needed cooperation from civil society, religious leaders and the media for raising awareness against the virus.

Importance of such cooperation cannot be emphasised enough considering the misleading propaganda spread by certain elements that polio vaccination renders children impotent, and comes from a Western conspiracy to reduce Muslim population.

The minister also announced the start of a vaccination drive in the tribal districts on August 15 and a countrywide campaign on August 22. These are essential standard measures, but health authorities also need to look beyond them to figure out reasons for the resurgence of the virus in places which were earlier declared to be free of poliovirus, and devise an effective response.

They do not have to go far for that. There is the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s (GPEI’s) finding that the oral polio vaccination, used in this country, contains live though weakened polioviruses — found in sewerage samples of seven cities — that can be shed in the stool of vaccinated children.

If they remain weak, further states the GPEI, these poop-bound polioviruses can actually boost the level of immunity in communities with poor sanitation by spreading to unvaccinated people. Hence detection of the poliovirus in sewerage samples of our various cities may not be such a setback as it is deemed to be.

That, however, can also spell danger. Experts point out that in some instances, the viruses have evolved to behave more like wild, naturally occurring polioviruses that can cause illness in unvaccinated people.

Because of this risk, several countries use only inactivated polio vaccines rather than oral ones. Pakistan should also consider using that option for complete eradication of this debilitating disease.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2022

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