September 22nd, 2020
By Hidayatullah Achakzai
Only very recently, the Africa Regional Certification Commission announced the eradication of wild poliovirus in the continent, leaving only Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two remaining countries in the world where polio, a disabling and life-threatening disease, is still prevalent. According to the relevant authorities, there are several factors behind the inefficacy of Pakistan’s anti-polio campaign, such as the country’s high rate of illiteracy, an acute lack of basic health facilities in remote and rural areas, technical obstacles in vaccination drives, and lack of awareness of the vaccines among the populace.
“It is unfortunate that locals here hide their children [from receiving polio drops]. Around 10,000 to 15,000 children per campaign are missed against our target of 146,000 vaccinations,” explained Dr. Shamsullah, the Area Coordinator for the World Health Organization (WHO). “Because of an error by our frontline healthcare workers or because of the parents’ negligence, some children do not receive the vaccine. The resulting immunization gap allows the disease to continue to propagate; this is the primary reason why we have so far failed to interrupt the circulation of the virus.”
Qilla Abdullah, a district in Balochistan adjoining the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, has been declared a particularly worrying hotbed for poliovirus after sewage sampling revealed a high poliovirus prevalence. Of the 19 polio cases reported across the province this year, two of them were detected in Qilla Abdullah.
Dr. Shamsullah further elaborated that since September of last year, environmental samples have turned up positive [for polio prevalence] in Qilla Abdullah. “And then the critical blow to our healthcare infrastructure during the coronavirus pandemic had set back our monthly immunization drives.”
The refusal rate, that is the number of adult Pakistanis turning away door-to-door vaccines and failing to take their children to the nearest vaccination point, is also climbing in this region. A seminar attended by journalists was organized which shed light on the role of media representatives in creating awareness and informing public opinion on polio. During the occasion, Additional Deputy Commissioner Farooq Shah stated that depriving children of oral polio vaccine is tantamount to inviting the disabling and potentially fatal disease and that parents are expected to play a crucial and responsible role in securing the health of their child.
“A disabled child seeing other children playing football would also want to play, but cannot. For the disabled, living is difficult. They cannot progress in life,” said Mahmood Khan, a local resident who had contracted polio in his childhood and now cannot walk without the aid of a pair of crutches. “I implore parents to ensure their children receive oral polio drops every campaign, and save them from this crippling disease.”
Unable to enjoy a healthy and fulfilled life unlike their polio-free counterparts, children suffering from polio also bear stress and loneliness that comes with the disease.
The Government of Pakistan has set a target for eliminating polio from the country by December 2023. At the same time, authorities are moving to adopt a strategy to identify high-risk union councils at the grassroots level, and ensure provision of facilities in the affected regions, in close collaboration with the WHO, UNICEF, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.