PESHAWAR: In an encouraging development, more and more parents, who were previously opposed to vaccination, are now getting anti-polio drops administered to their children due to better community involvement by the authorities, say officials.

They told Dawn that most people, who had showed a strong disinclination to vaccinate their children in the April campaign, had allowed their children’s vaccination against polio due to the engagement of community and religious leaders amid elaborate security in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the epicentre of the crippling childhood disease reporting 46 of this year’s countrywide 62 cases.

“We have reduced the number of vaccination refusal cases from 800,000 in April to less than 200,000 in Aug. This suggests that people are rejecting calls against polio vaccination and are vaccination their children for their protection against disabilities,” Expanded Programme on Immunisation director Dr Mohammad Saleem told Dawn.

Officials insist better involvement of community helping anti-polio fight

He said though the data collection was under way, he hoped that the vaccination refusal incidence would further decline.

Dr Saleem said except the vaccination inaugural ceremony in Mashokhel village on Aug 27, where the chief minister showed up to send a tit-for-tat message to ‘anti-vaxxers’, the campaign was carried out in a low-profile manner and that strategy paid off as the people, who had earlier opposed the oral polio vaccine, brought children voluntarily for vaccination and thus, helping reduce refusal incidence.

He said more efforts were made to address misconceptions regarding the efficacy of polio vaccine during the focus group discussions involving community and religious elders, which declined the number of people, who were reluctant to get OPV administered to their children.

“Prior to the campaign, we held training session for health workers to improve their communication skills so that they can woo parents on vaccination,” he said.

The EPI director said a halt to the booking of parents for opposing polio vaccination and scaling up of their knowledge about vaccine significance produced ‘highly positive’ response.

He said the people were rejecting the narratives of extremists and anti-vaccine elements as they began to understand that vaccination was designed to prevent childhood disabilities.

“We are making all-out efforts with the support of our dedicated teams and using all mediums to create a demand for vaccination,” he said.

Dr Saleem said no untoward incident occurred during the four-day polio campaign, which targeted 4.6 million children in 29 districts, due to foolproof security arrangements.

“To enhance vaccination coverage, we carried out a province-wide campaign this month targeting all children for 10 vaccine-preventable illnesses, including poliomyelitis,” he said.

The EPI director said 62 polio cases were reported in the country this year, including 46 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, six in Sindh and five in Balochistan and Punjab each.

He said Bannu division had reported 33 cases, including 22 in Bannu, eight in North Waziristan and three in Lakki Marwat.

“We are paying attention to the Bannu division to address vaccination issues and hope that the people will shun propaganda and vaccinate their children,” he said.

Dr Saleem said the next campaign expected to begin in Nov would show more positive results and hoped that the province was on its way to eradicate polio, which had already been eliminated around the world except in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He said alongside polio vaccination, the focus was on the strengthening of essential immunisation through better coverage by enhanced outreach activities.

Experts said a meeting of the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Polio that was held in Islamabad last month had expressed concern about poor polio campaigns in KP, Punjab and Sindh and had suggested focused, joint efforts by all stakeholders, including health department and UN agencies, to ensure quality immunisation.

They said in a departure from the previous campaigns when parents were booked for defying vaccination, the authorities were currently reminding people of their responsibility to protect children against diseases through vaccination, they said.

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2019