Polio strikes back

March 29, 2020

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WHILE governments around the world come to terms with a sudden spike in the number of novel coronavirus patients, several new cases of the vaccine-derived poliovirus have been reported in Pakistan, intensifying its current health challenge. As a result, the total number of polio cases in the country has crossed 30 so far this year. This strain of the poliovirus was believed to have been eliminated from the population several years ago, only to make its reappearance last year. After an explosive Guardian investigation revealed flaws in Pakistan’s polio eradication programme, the health ministry was forced to admit that there had indeed been a resurgence in the vaccine-derived poliovirus, which has also sprung up in a few other parts of the world in recent years. Pakistan has the unfortunate distinction of being one of only three countries in the world that have not yet been declared polio-free. In 2019, there had been a sudden uptick in the number of polio cases following malicious anti-vaccine campaigns, and higher rates of refusals as a result of them. What is perhaps most tragic is that the country seemed so close to eradicating polio not too long ago, when just eight cases had been reported in 2017 — the lowest it had ever been.

Even though Covid-19 has understandably overshadowed all other news, and much of the country is under lockdown, the campaign to eliminate polio must not be forgotten. Right now, the international community is overwhelmed with the rapid spread of Covid-19, and a cure is yet to be found for it. However, polio has largely been eliminated from the world — even in countries with higher population densities, greater issues with sanitation and longer-lasting conflicts than Pakistan. Medical experts must be brought in to assess how the polio drive can continue under the current climate, and how best to ensure the safety of the health workers and children being administered the vaccine.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020