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Polio exit is one push away

April 30, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

LAST week’s deadly attack on police escorting a polio vaccination team in the Karachi suburb of Orangi which left seven law enforcers dead was overshadowed by the cacophony of protest over the appearance of the names of the prime minister’s children in the leaked Panama Papers and news of the removal from service of six army officers on corruption charges.

Dead policemen probably do not generate enough ratings for the media to keep the issue in sharp focus. And when news ‘breaks’ that apart from crooked politicians there can be men in khaki going up to the rank of lieutenant-general who get caught with their hand in the till all else becomes pointless to ponder — for the media at least.

Quite frankly, Pakistan’s much-maligned police force has offered a staggering number of sacrifices, and continues to lose its personnel on the front line of the array of law-enforcement officials who face the wrath of the increasingly-desperate terrorist especially in the country’s urban and semi-urban areas.

There is no doubt that better training and awareness of the threat in densely populated areas could perhaps reduce the number of police deaths seen in recent years. There is equally no way that a country fighting a war against well-entrenched terrorists won’t take serious casualties.

It was a great pity that alongside the fallen policemen, Panamagate and military corruption reports also pushed from centre stage the polio vaccination story which needs utmost focus and attention.

Till a couple of years ago, only three countries were still reporting polio infections: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria with the rest of the world having eradicated it. For a year and a half now, Nigeria has been polio-free. With a billion people, India did it in 2014.

A campaigner friend termed polio eradication as a “low-hanging fruit” that can easily be reached. To be fair, despite facing a single-minded onslaught from terrorists, polio workers in the country have fought a heroic battle and it reflects in the falling number of infections.

Despite the threat from terrorists, polio workers in the country have fought a heroic battle against the infection.

Last year’s 54 infections represented a huge drop over the previous year’s 306 cases, official figures suggest. This year so far eight infections have been reported. One earnestly hopes that this figure is contained to a low level in 2016 and turns to zero next year.

There is a need to have all law-enforcement forces including the army and paramilitary Rangers committed to providing security to polio workers who go from door to door giving children the drops that protect them from the threat of infection.

From KP to Balochistan and Sindh, there have been attacks on these workers and the security officials accompanying them because of the propaganda of obscurantists who spread lies eg the polio campaign is a Western ploy to sterilise Muslims.

Like many lies propagated from the pulpit, these lies too have found a receptive audience. Backed by the threat of terrorist violence, this poses a serious danger to our fight against polio. Only an undying resolve to save our children from this avoidable tragedy can make the eradication goal attainable.

Since only 12 districts, less than 10pc of the total, in the country are now classified as being at high risk of infection, targeted efforts may perhaps be easier to direct. Thankfully, polio is one area where the usually lethargic and bureaucratic responses are not being evidenced and, sensing the finish line isn’t too far away, all concerned governments and departments are going full steam ahead.

The path to polio eradication is clearly signposted and once this goal has been achieved the experience of such sustained, repeated and countrywide administration of the drops can form the basis of other such efforts for vaccination or simply raising awareness of child health issues.

This can also serve to cut the currently high numbers of children who die due to diarrhoea and pneumonia and while children can’t be fully protected against either, health workers can embark on a countrywide, door-to-door campaign to raise awareness of how such deaths can be minimised.

As I write these lines during the World Immunisation Week, allow me to disclose a personal interest in the polio eradication effort. I contracted polio before the age of three at a time when even leading paediatricians were just beginning to learn about the disease.

There was no awareness so I was not vaccinated against the infection and when I contracted it I was misdiagnosed and wrongly treated for a number of weeks at a leading hospital before the doctors realised what it actually was.

This of course isn’t to say my predicament was worsened by the misdiagnosis as in the absence of vaccination polio can be devastating anyway. But let me tell you while surrounded by a doting family and being unusually fortunate to have found friends in life who have been hugely supportive and being bull-headed myself, life hasn’t been easy.

I was lucky enough to have been born in a middle-class family which could cater to my special needs and afford my education at the best of institutions. As I have written in the past too, polio and poverty make for a lethal mix.

I often wonder if I had such a disability, and no education what challenges would life have posed. My ability to lead an independent life would have been seriously limited. Reliance on others for even the most basic of things would probably have been the norm.

Let’s all promise never to inflict such a life on any child or adult in the country. It is avoidable and within reach. One final push is needed.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2016