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Pakistan still struggling to eradicate polio

In this file photo, a Pakistani health worker administers polio vaccination drops to a child in Peshawar. (AFP)
KARACHI: In a recent report, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for polio expressed concerns about the quality, reliability, capacity and authenticity of surveillance data from the polio program in Pakistan.
The country has been urged to revisit the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) to identify gaps. A striking observation is the number of children still missed during immunization rounds.
“The Polio Program’s performance in the last three seasons (covering 15 immunization rounds) is revealing,” the report said.
“In Pakistan, even after attempts to go back to communities to find the children who had been missed, the approximate numbers unvaccinated were: 767,000 (low season 2016); 760,000 (high season 2016); 858,000 (low season 2017).”
Health Department officials say the metropolitan city of Karachi is in the most vulnerable situation when it comes to polio proliferation.
Dr. Fazlullah Pechuho, secretary of the Health Department in Sindh province, said the department is aware of the emergency.
“Every month, 5,000 people come to Karachi from different parts of the country and from Afghanistan. They’re a guest population. We don’t know whether their children are properly immunized or not,” he told Arab News.
“In Karachi alone, there are 50,000 missing children, which means we have no trace of their immunization.”
Pechuho said no one should be allowed to enter the city unless they are immunized. “People have to take responsibility for their children. Parents should be penalized for refusing immunization. Their ID cards should be blocked.”
An official who has been working with the polio team in Pakistan since 1999, and who supervises a team of 80 workers in Karachi, told Arab News on condition of anonymity: “We haven’t been able to track children who are carrying the polio virus. It’s a moving population from the tribal belt of Pakistan that comes to Karachi during winters and goes back during summers.”
Ground support
“Workers fighting the virus have no support on the ground,” the official said. “They’re not respected in society. People don’t let them vaccinate. They face death threats and are paid a pittance, without food and transport.”
He added: “I see well-paid officers who sit in air-conditioned rooms, but those who are fighting on the ground have nothing. We’re warriors with empty hands.”
He continued: “If we make polio vaccination certificates compulsory for all education admissions, and even for passports and national ID cards, people will start taking the campaign seriously. The government has to make stringent laws.”
Lack of awareness
Health worker Sajida Kazi said the major challenge in eradicating polio in Pakistan is lack of awareness.
Those who refuse vaccination for their children “believe it’s a conspiracy hatched by our enemies to destroy us. They also make it a religious issue, that the medicine has ingredients that are un-Islamic,” Kazi told Arab News. “We need support from our religious scholars and national heroes to create awareness.”
But Christopher Maher, manager of polio eradication and emergency support at the World Health Organization (WHO), said the IMB report shows a decline in the estimated number of missed children.
“It’s worth noting that the number of children still missed in each round (of vaccination) comes to less than 3 percent of the estimated target population of children under five years of age for the country,” he said.
Global initiative
The GPEI, a public-private partnership, was launched in 1988, and has invested more than $14 billion via the WHO and UNICEF to support polio eradication activities in more than 70 countries.
In 2011, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a partnership that made a combined donation of $100 million to buy and deliver vaccines to children in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In 2013, the UAE hosted the inaugural Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi, where Sheikh Mohammed committed another $120 million between 2013 and 2018 to fight the disease.