Time to declare a polio emergency

Updated January 11, 2020

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IN a mere matter of months, years’ worth of progress towards eradicating poliovirus in Pakistan has been reversed. With six new confirmations, the total tally of polio cases in 2019 now stands at 134 — a staggering increase of over 1,000pc compared to 12 cases the year before. Sheer negligence has resulted in the wild poliovirus type 1 — contained to just a few locations as recently as early 2018 — now spreading to a number of areas across the country.

Meanwhile, the resurgence of the dangerous vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2, which had previously been eradicated, has been attributed to the accidental use of years-old vaccines which ought to have been destroyed. Pakistan featured heavily in a recent statement on the international spread of poliovirus by the Emergence Committee of the WHO’s International Health Regulations, in which it recommended extending travel recommendations for another three months, given its assessment that the risk of international spread of the disease was the highest it has been since 2014. In its statement, the WHO also expressed an “urgent need to overhaul the leadership and strategy of the [polio eradication] programme in Pakistan”.

Indeed, for some time now, global bodies have been raising the alarm on Pakistan’s pathetic polio response. The recent International Monitoring Board report categorically termed the country’s polio-eradication efforts a “political football” and attributed their failure to a “lack of political unity”. It described the re-emergence of the virus in areas declared polio-free at the outset of 2018 as “a massive reversal of the trajectory to global polio eradication”. This scathing indictment came despite Prime Minister Imran Khan’s frequent expressions of concern over the rise in polio cases and numerous pledges to eliminate the disease for good. It was also no less dissonant when, in December, public health and polio officials described anti-polio efforts to be “back on track” at the conclusion of what they claimed was a successful national immunisation drive. However, the five-day drive saw some grave managerial issues — including administering expired oral vaccines to scores of children in Rawalpindi, and failing to reach nearly 300,000 children in Sindh despite official claims of 100pc coverage in the province.

Clearly, Pakistan must learn from these catastrophic mistakes. To have come so close to eradicating eradication polio — in the face of terrorist attacks, disinformation campaigns and public mistrust — only to enable its horrific resurgence through little more than gross ineptitude is despicable. The government must arouse from its complacent slumber and declare a polio emergency, with the prime minister himself leading the campaign in order to stress how crucial this public health issue is. The future of countless children rests on how he tackles this national crisis.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2020