The world is so close to eradicating poliovirus. Africa, another developing continent gripped by political and economic uncertainty, declared itself to be polio-free. This is indeed historic. Now, alongside Afghanistan, Pakistan is left as one of the only two countries in the world where polio is still endemic.
64 polio cases have already been reported this year, this is a daunting increase from the 12 reported cases in 2018 and it showcases an alarming increase of almost 155%. This is an exceptionally contagious virus, it spreads through personal contact and can lead to irreversible paralysis in its victims usually targeting fragile children under five; this should be reason enough for the government to raise it up in the priority list.
Pakistan already endures a wide range of health disparities, there are already multiple destructive cracks in the system, and neglecting this wild but containable virus is the highest form of irresponsibility and negligence. Despite the pronounced reported increase in the number of cases, the virus remains as a forsaken critical threat to the lives of the children of Pakistan.
Eradicating polio in Pakistan has been deliberately slow because of an ill fated combination of a highly dense population, lack of infrastructure, extreme poverty, and inefficient sanitation especially in the rural areas. These variants impact the transmission of the poliovirus and reduce the effectiveness of the oral vaccine. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the healthcare infrastructure of Pakistan and currently acts as a convenient excuse for deserting the polio cause. This adds on to the existing lack of access to healthcare and it is not a good combination.
Unlike the novel coronavirus, poliovirus has been widely researched, a vaccine exists for this, it has successfully been eliminated in other developing parts of the world, and eradicating this virus is not impossible. We are in no position to pull out invalid excuses anymore. Post lockdown, the government has steered focus towards bringing back the economy by reopening malls and tourism. It fails to see the 40 million Pakistani children who have missed these crucial poliovirus vaccinations during the 4 months of lockdown and how their lives are as risk. The government is building the economy without building the future generation of Pakistan.
In the 4 months that the polio vaccination drive had remained suspended, polio drives should have resumed sooner with proper SOPs for vaccinators to bridge the immunity gap that has grown wider since the PTI government came to power. What is more shocking is that there is an ongoing investigation against PTI’s former focal person on polio, Babar Bin Atta’s – who is alleged for corruption and embezzlement of funds. The PTI government has been with hunting opposition for corruption allegations. Will it question and take action against its own administration? Moreover, during a recent Senate session, Senator Anny Marri grilled the federal government and stated that “We should call polio victims to the parliament to tell how badly we have failed them”.
There is an urgent need for validating measures to be taken by including the proper technology and developing a robust electronic medical record system to eliminate the chances of missing children during the vaccination drives. Parents, especially expectant parents, must be educated on the importance of this vaccine for their children through trusted channels including and not limited to district and tribal leaders, and religious scholars that can confirm the vaccine is halal.
Polio vaccine is rejected by many and these people must see poliovirus as more of a reality. Polio survivors, teachers, parents, even religious leaders must actively engage in advocating for polio vaccine and to immunize children, it is important that we stay vigilant in such situations.
Extirpating a disease is a big deal and it is a whole process. We must pivot as a nation and work towards nothing but the cause for a healthier future generation.Recently, WHO director general, Dr. Ghebreyesu, clearly stated that national unity is key in defeating the COVID-19 pandemic. The same perspective applies in eliminating the polio conundrum once and for all. Without national cohesion, we simple cannot beat poliovirus.