LAHORE: In what appeared to be an alarming situation, the number of children not vaccinated during the first four days of the last anti-polio drive across the country has reached 2.3 million, alarming figures that have never been reported in any previous campaign.

An official privy to the information said both the refusal cases and missed children have been an area of serious concern for the global partners like the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Unicef supporting Pakistan to eradicate the crippling disease.

He said the dismal figures of the recent anti-polio drive also alarmed the federal and provincial authorities, prompting them to call an emergent meeting to mull over the situation.

The official said the Technical Advisory Group under the Global Polio Eradication Initiative that was expected to visit Pakistan in coming weeks might also take up the matter with the authorities.

On unsatisfactory response by Pakistan, global partners might also recommend or impose certain travel restrictions on the country, he apprehended.

On the other hand, senior government officials, medical experts and pediatricians from all over the country gathered in the provincial capital (Lahore) to discuss various options to steer the country out of the crisis on Saturday.

Later, in a statement issued in this respect, they appealed, particularly to the parents being the main stakeholders, to show their trust in polio vaccination to save their children from illness, disability and death from a vaccine preventable diseases.

Prof Muhammad Ashraf Sultan, Member of the National Immunisation Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) Pakistan, said the vaccines were one of the best-known interventions to prevent deaths and reduce disease burden among children.

He said the vaccines were also considered to be a major tool to eradicate diseases such as smallpox (already eradicated) polio and measles. The vaccines were provided free of cost through the national programme in Pakistan, he said, adding that immunisation was estimated to save 2-3 million lives every year.

Unfortunately, around 19.5m infants worldwide are still missing out on basic vaccines. “If the optimum rates of immunisation or ‘herd immunity’ were not maintained, the diseases prevented by vaccination will return,” Prof Sultan feared.

While highlighting the facts about vaccine-preventable diseases in Pakistan, he said, “In Pakistan, rotavirus leads to 1 out of 3 infant’s hospitalisation and almost every child gets infected with rotavirus by their 5th birthday”.

Moreover, pneumococcal meningitis is the most common form of meningitis and the most serious of bacterial meningitis.Very young children – as young as a few months old and up to the age of two - are at the highest risk of pneumococcal meningitis.

Similarly, polio was a highly infectious viral disease that could cause irreversible paralysis, said Prof Sultan.

He said measles was a highly contagious disease caused by a virus, which usually resulted in high fever and rashes, and could lead to blindness, encephalitis or death. Hepatitis B was a viral infection that attacked the liver, he added.

Dr Sajid Maqbool, a seasoned paediatrician, stressed the need for vaccination, saying that it could reduce the usage of some antibiotics.

He added that vaccines were the most affordable solution when it came to preventing certain health hazards.

He said that in Pakistan the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) was initiated in 1978. EPI currently aims to vaccinate approximately 6 million children aged 0-11 months against 10 targetted diseases: childhood tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, pertussis, diarrhea, hepatitis B, aemophilus influenza Type b (HIB), pneumonia, measles and tetanus.

He said every stakeholder would have to play its role to get children vaccinated “and it was very unfortunate that we are losing precious young lives to vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Published in Dawn, April 28th, 2019