ISLAMABAD: The government has decided in principle to appoint a leading member of the PTI social media team, who is also a close aide to Prime Minister Imran Khan, the prime minister’s focal person for polio eradication.

The post was created 10 years ago on directions from the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) to ensure input from the premier in the effort to eradicate the poliovirus. It has been vacant since Aug 1, when the last focal person Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq resigned. The tenure of the post is five years.

“Although the Pakistan polio programme has improved significantly, a lot more needs to be done as the goal cannot be achieved before completely eradicating the virus,” Babar bin Atta said, while confirming that his name has been finalised for the post in principle.

Pakistan has taken polio eradication as a National Public Health Emergency since 2011, and an annual National Emergency Action Plan (NEAP) is implemented across the country under the guidance of a national taskforce led by the prime minister, with provincial chief ministers, the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Azad Kashmir prime minister and the Gilgit-Baltistan chief minister on board.

Babar bin Atta is a close aide to PM, has previous experience in polio communications at Unicef, WHO

A focal person is nominated by the prime minister to ensure greater oversight and provide real-time political support. In addition to overseeing the implementation of the NEAP on the prime minister’s behalf, the focal person is tasked with regularly updating the prime minister and national taskforce on the polio situation and the steps required from the federal and provincial governments to eradicate polio.

In response to a question, Mr Atta said the position is honorary and does not involve any financial remuneration.

He said he has currently been working as an adviser on media and communication to the chairman and secretary general of the PTI.

“Moreover, I have worked as the polio communications officer at the United Nations Children’s Fund for four years and also worked as the focal person on polio communications with the World Health Organisation for four years,” he added.

He said he also drafted the Sehat ka Insaf programme launched by the last PTI government in KP.

Although just four polio cases have been reported this year – compared to 306 in 2014 – even a single case is too many because the virus can move from one child to another rapidly, he said.

When asked if Pakistan would achieve polio-free status under the current government, Mr Atta said complete eradication would only be achievable if performance is improved to the required level.

“We are doing well right now, but we are clearly short of achieving the required levels. I am more than sure that along with international partners we can get there, and if the prime minister appoints me as his focal person I shall make sure we get there, no matter what it takes,” he said.

Also on Monday, the chairman of the Technical Advisory Group on Polio Eradication Dr Jean-Marc Olivé called on the national health services (NHS) minister, who reaffirmed the government’s full support for the eradication of polio.

NHS Minister Aamer Mehmood Kiani said the government is working to overcome the remaining challenges as they arise.

“We are committed to stopping poliovirus transmission in the core reservoirs and sustaining our highly data-driven programming that effectively guides our operations.”

He expressed his satisfaction in the quality, efficacy and safety of the oral polio vaccine and added that the polio programme must ensure that every child under the age of five is vaccinated during every immunisation campaign.

Dr Olivé commended the extraordinary efforts of the country’s team, the thousands of frontline workers backed by law enforcement agencies and unprecedented government commitment to polio eradication at all levels.

“The persistent positive environmental samples in the core reservoirs of Peshawar and Karachi, as well as the recent upsurge of positive environmental samples across the country however, mean that the war against polio is far from over,” he said.

“The inaccessibility related intense virus circulation in shared corridors with Afghanistan further leaves no space for Pakistan to relax till the job is fully done,” he added.

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2018