Polio resurgence

15 Dec 2019


ON Friday, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated a three-day polio immunisation drive in the capital city. Starting from Dec 16, approximately 39.6m children under the age of five will be administered anti-polio drops by a 260,000-strong vaccination team. In a short speech, the prime minister noted that it was a matter of “shame” for Pakistan to be one of only two countries in the world that still suffer from outbreaks of the virus. He also honoured the memory of all those workers who had lost their lives in the struggle to ensure a better future for the nation’s children. Despite the risk to their lives, vaccine teams continue their duties on the ground, braving harsh winters and hostile terrains to reach their targets. Not too long ago, it seemed like the country was on its way to joining the long list of nations that have been declared polio-free over the years. In 2017, Pakistan recorded only eight new cases of polio, which was a commendable achievement, considering thousands of new cases used to be registered in the 1990s. In 2018, that figure rose slightly to 12.

But 2019 has not been a good year for anti-polio efforts. There were a few instances of attacks on polio teams, which led to the death of two security officials and one polio worker in April. The refusal rates also remained high due to the malicious spread of disinformation about the vaccine on social and mainstream media. And then last month, The Guardian’s investigation into Pakistan’s polio programme resulted in the state minister of health admitting that there was indeed a re-emergence of the vaccine-derived P2 virus in the population. He said that seven children had contracted this P2 strain of the polio virus, which was believed to have been eradicated from the country five years ago. There are now more than 100 new cases of the polio virus in the country, with over 70 of them in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the most recent instance, two cases from Sindh and one from KP have been detected. At this rate, it is sad to note the likelihood of yet more polio cases as we prepare for the new year. Whatever the challenges may be — and indeed, there are many — the polio eradication effort’s eventual failure or success will rest on the shoulders of the current prime minister.

Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2019