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The long battle

February 10, 2019

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WHAT seemed recently to be within grasp, ie the eradication of polio in Pakistan, has once again turned out to be an elusive dream. Pakistan is one of the last few polio-endemic countries in the world, along with Afghanistan (cross-border infiltration being one of the challenges) and Nigeria. But even as sporadic cases continued to be reported, they were primarily from the lower-income districts of Karachi, raising hopes that at least in much of the rest of the territory, the spread of the crippling disease had been contained. No longer. This week, it was discovered that samples collected from Faisalabad’s Achkera pumping station tested positive for the virus, with the strain of the virus already circulating in Lahore. This returns Faisalabad to the list of districts affected by the malady, the reason apparently being a major decline in the rates of immunisation of children. A source privy to the immunisation campaign told this newspaper, as reported on Saturday, that according to a recent survey, on an average a 50pc drop was evident in the immunisation coverage in Faisalabad, and now traces of the poliovirus had been detected again after more than two years. It is believed by many medical experts that the Punjab government is not taking the issue as seriously as it ought to be, despite the dangers posed by three high-risk districts in the province: Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Dera Ghazi Khan.

There is an urgent need for Punjab — as well as all other parts of the country — to act with resolution and alacrity. The reality is also that they have to act in tandem. According to medical experts, the only route to the eradication of the poliovirus is herd immunisation, which means that every child in the country must be immunised within more or less the same time period so that the virus has nowhere to go to. The group immunised must include children who may have been vaccinated previously outside the EPI schedule. The challenges that the country’s anti-polio drive has already faced have been formidable, ranging from the killings of vaccinators by militants to refusals (to vaccinate) by the parents and guardians of children due to a lack of understanding and a deeply damaging campaign led by religious elements. These challenges have now dissipated somewhat, but the findings in Faisalabad are a setback. More interest on the part of state authorities is needed for the pursuit of the vital goal of eradication.

Published in Dawn, February 10th, 2019