Polio persists

November 09, 2019

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EXPLOSIVE revelations in a recent investigation into Pakistan’s polio programme by The Guardian have rattled the trust of many. Citing unnamed sources and a member of the polio eradication programme, the investigation alleged there was a re-emergence of the P2 virus in the population, possibly through an ill-administered vaccine. Furthermore, the article claimed, efforts were made to cover up this disturbing new development, while a furtive vaccine programme was planned to target the outbreak of the P2 virus this month. Presently, Pakistan uses P1 and P3 vaccines, as the P2 virus was thought to have been eradicated in 2014. The special assistant to the prime minister on health issued a statement denying these very serious allegations, but also confirmed there were seven new cases of vaccine-derived P2, after The Guardian story created a storm. He mentioned that the resurgence of the vaccine-derived P2 virus was not unique to Pakistan, as similar outbreaks were witnessed in countries that had long been declared polio-free. While there has indeed been a resurgence of the vaccine-derived P2 in some countries over the past two years, this cannot be accepted as a valid excuse.

There is a need for greater transparency, accountability, and perhaps an official investigation. One cannot help but question the former and present leadership of the polio programme, at a time when there has been a massive spike in the number of new cases in the country. Pakistan has the misfortune of being one of three countries in the world that are yet to be declared polio-free. In 2017, there were eight cases of polio recorded in the country. In 2018, this figure rose to 12. As of writing this editorial, three more cases have been reported, increasing the number of new polio cases to 80 this year. Pakistan’s polio vaccination efforts have battled religious militancy and misinformation. It would be a tragedy if they failed due to the ineptitude of those overseeing the programme.

Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2019