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Polio eradication

December 08, 2017

AS the clock ticks ever closer to the passage of another year, it is a time of reckoning all round: what gains have been made, what losses incurred, in the country’s various endeavours? One topic that has cropped up with distressing regularity is that of polio. Despite the decades-long battle against the crippling disease — the national eradication programme was initiated in 1994 — and frenetic efforts to vaccinate every child, Pakistan has not yet been able to eliminate the virus completely. Along with Nigeria, which is well on its way to eradication, and Afghanistan, we are one of the world’s last three countries where anti-polio drives have yet to achieve complete success. Still, the gains have been considerable despite formidable odds (such as the campaign by some quarters to brand the polio vaccine as harmful, leading to parents’ refusal to allow the drops to be administered to their children, and the numerous attacks by terrorists on vaccination teams). The number of new cases has declined fairly steadily over the years, from an estimated 350,000 cases in 1988, to 54 in 2015, to 19 last year. It was in this context that on Wednesday, speaking at a conference in Islamabad, National Health Services Minister Saira Tarar said that Pakistan is fighting its final battle against the virus and has achieved major success.

It is unfortunate, though, that Ms Tarrar’s reassurance coincided with news of another polio case in Karachi — its second in three months. In terms of the whole country, these cases bring the tally so far this year to six. Even so, it cannot be denied that the goal of polio eradication hangs tantalisingly within reach. There is an urgent need for redoubled efforts on the part of all those involved in the vaccination campaigns, whether it is the vaccinators themselves, those that have taken up the task of advocacy and spreading awareness, or the national and international bodies providing the vaccine and critical funding. A final push could prove pivotal.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2017