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A stopover for a cause: fight against polio

May 17, 2013

LAHORE, May 16: Seeing a team administering anti-polio drops to children along a Lahore road, a nomadic family stopped by and asked the officials to vaccinate their children as well. The family was on a donkey cart. The team took hardly four minutes to vaccinate the family and let it resume their journey.

“These drops will keep me healthy,” said one of the girls on the cart, when asked about the vaccine.

Though polio vaccination of nomadic children has been a challenge for health officials, widespread awareness of the crippling disease has turned these families towards vaccination in Lahore.

The family was travelling to Hyderabad Thall, a union council of Mankera in search of work.

Such migrant populations, which travel from one place to another in search of employment, pose the biggest challenge to the government and its partners when it comes to immunisation of children against diseases including polio.

They do not have proper record of routine immunisation and nothing to suggest on their arms that they have been vaccinated against TB, measles, pneumonia and other vaccine-preventable diseases. According to the WHO and Unicef experts, such populations have very less percentage of routine and polio vaccination.

“The families of my brothers have been vaccinated but my children could not be given drops because we were away to another neighbourhood when the polio teams visited our shanties,” said Ashiq, the family head, pointing to his family. He says he is well aware of the importance of polio vaccination since many people crippled by the disease could be seen in shanties.

According to researchers such groups do not live at a permanent place and always keep on the move due to social and economic compulsions. They live in shanties and at places where basic facilities are non-existent and it is difficult to reach them.

The population is always mobile in reservoir areas of Balochistan, Sindh, southern Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and therefore there is an increased possibility of them carrying viruses including polio.

“What will happen to me if I do not have polio drops? Am I going to die,” questioned a girl on the cart in her native Punjabi-Seraiki dialect.

According to experts, deadly viruses like polio thrive in populations which have poor nutritional status, who live in unhygienic conditions and congested localities.

With staple food prices rising dramatically in the country, these populations have very little choice but to migrate with their families to grab every chance of earning a livelihood.

According to a report prepared by the WFP, in collaboration with Unicef and the WHO, the poorest have been severely affected by higher food prices.

It states the high food prices have also led to an adverse impact on health and nutrition in various ways as poorer food consumption increases malnutrition, which in turn heightens susceptibility to diseases like polio.

Industrial states, donors and UN bodies have been struggling to help such families and children, who earn less than one dollar a day, due to financial crunch.

Dr Tahir Manzoor, who is health and nutrition expert at Unicef, says such children eat, drink, sleep and excrete at the same place thus placing them in a list of marginalised people.

“They have serious deficiencies in their bodies but they continue to live in such conditions because they do not have any other option because of extreme poverty,” he says.

Dr Tahir says Unicef, which is mandated by the United Nations General Assembly to advocate for the protection of children’s rights, is mobilising political will and material resources to help countries ensure a ‘first call for children’ and to build their capacity to form appropriate policies and deliver services for children and their families.

He says such populations are reached with out-of-home messaging and outdoor advertising as well as Social Mobilization teams. “Sadly though, we do not have Social Mobilization staff in Bhakkar due to financial constraints,” he says.

Although the district administration has placed teams at entry and exit points of the district to vaccinate children on the spot, such nomads reach their destinations using pathways and mud tracks. And in the absence of communication network staff, government teams do not have proper lists and data of nomadic populations.