At last, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has come up with a plan to tackle the longstanding problem of polio. ‘Sehat Ka Insaf’ programme to be launched in Peshawar this month is the brainchild of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.
The programme has replaced the polio campaigns as instead of running a polio-specific drive, the health workers will now target all nine vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio. Apparently, there is no role left for the UN agencies in the ‘Sehat Ka Insaf’ programme as it will be run by the provincial government. It will put an end to the public complaints that the donor agencies spend huge amount on their vehicles, salaries and upkeep of offices rather than focusing on their objective.
Pakistan began the anti-polio campaign in 1994 when the World Health Organisation declared global emergency against the vaccine-preventable childhood ailment. Due to aggressive vaccination, the disease was eradicated from the entire world, but the virus still exists in three countries, including Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
The UN agencies, especially the Unicef and WHO which provided technical assistance to Pakistan, failed to put brakes on the disease because of the unrealistic strategies they pursued.
These agencies sponsored the polio inauguration campaigns with pump and show that created doubts in the mind of general public who also raised questions why the government was visiting their doors for administering oral polio vaccine (OPV) to their children while there was no free treatment for other chronic diseases.
The Swat-based cleric Maulana Fazlullah, who is now Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan chief, started delivering sermons from the FM radio in 2005, asking people that vaccine was haram (forbidden) in Islam and those using it were infidels. He also argued that it was a ploy by the Western countries to render the recipients sterile and impotent. But even before that, the situation with regard to polio vaccination had never been satisfactory.
Fazlullah’s argument found receptive ears and Swat recorded 40 cases in 2007.
The UN and other donor agencies have reportedly spent over $1 billion since the launch of the campaign, but the situation never saw any improvement and the crippling disease continue to haunt the children. For example, these agencies were required to play second fiddle to the government, acted at their own and didn’t take into account the government’s proposals and ground realities in the country, especially the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Federally Administered Tribal Areas where the disease affected most children.
The assassination campaign of people engaged in the polio-related activities severely disrupted the anti-polio efforts. Since Dec 2012, a total of 32 people had been killed nationwide in attacks on polio workers. Of these victims, 22 were from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
PTI chairman Imran Khan who inaugurated the anti-polio immunisation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa last month, has taken it as a challenge and vowed to eliminate the disease through his innovative programme ‘Sehat Ka Insaf’.
The programme seeks to replace the polio campaigns that were run in collaboration with the Prime Minister Polio Monitoring Cell throughout the country, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Now, there is no role left for the federal government after the passage of 18th amendment which authorised the provinces to have their own programmes for health and other problems.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa became the first province to implement its own immunisation programme in line with its own strategy.
According to Dr Jan Baz Afridi, who heads the Expanded Programme on Immunisation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the initiative taken by Imran Khan will prove effective. He said that focus on polio vaccination had adversely affected the immunisation for other vaccine-preventable diseases and children were dying of measles, TB and diphtheria.
The vaccinators remained busy in polio vaccination for most of the days every month due to which the overall immunisation rate came down to only 50 per cent. Under the new programme, the vaccinators will focus on all immunisable diseases that will not only do away with other childhood diseases, but also safeguard the vaccinators from being targeted.
Militants are opposed to polio vaccine only. Therefore, there will be no banner concerning polio and the vaccinators will offer a complete package that will protect children against several diseases, including polio.
The main points of “Sehat Ka Insaf” programme include free vaccination against nine vaccine preventable diseases, including tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, pertusis, tetanus, hepatitis ‘B’, haemophilus influenza, pneumonia and measles besides distribution of public health messages at the doorsteps of people.
Health messages will contain information about preventive measures concerning dengue fever, bird flu, hepatitis etc.
Under the programme, the health department will also hold free medical camps where vouchers for free checkups and free medicines will be provided to people. Each child will receive vitamin A drops. Each family will receive hygiene kit, including soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, towel, water container, etc.
The campaigns would be run only on Sundays. In the first phase, the campaign will take place in Peshawar for 12 Sundays. After Peshawar, it will be extended to other districts.
About 12,500 volunteers will take part in the campaign under strict security arrangements. Imran Khan’s decision to spearhead the campaign has been widely appreciated after the failure of the UN agencies to utilise the donors’ money for the benefit of children. In early 2013, Pakistan secured $300 million loan from the Islamic Development Bank when the donors refused to continue funding. So, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s plan to spend Rs2 billion from the IDB loan isn’t misplaced.
Pakistan recorded 92 cases in 2013, including 65 in Fata, 10 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nine in Punjab and six in Sindh. Of late, Peshawar has been declared as polio reservoir by the WHO.
The ‘Sehat Ka Insaf’ programme is expected to deliver, says Dr Jan Baz.