EPI staff fighting polio, Covid-19 simultaneously

Updated May 03, 2020

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EPI technicians collecting samples for Covid-19 test in a hard area of Dasu, Upper Kohistan. — Dawn photo
EPI technicians collecting samples for Covid-19 test in a hard area of Dasu, Upper Kohistan. — Dawn photo

PESHAWAR: As most staff members of the Emergency Operation Centre on polio stay away from workplaces due to the coronavirus pandemic, technicians of the health department’s expanded programme on immunisation (EPI) are inoculating children against 10 vaccine-preventable diseases and tracking and tracing suspected Covid-19 cases in their respective areas.

According to EPI technicians and officials, there is no break in routine immunisation as 2,876 technicians have been reaching most of the 1.1 million targeted population at 1,270 EPI centres in the province besides carrying out Covid-19-related activities.

They told Dawn that the polio staff working under the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) stayed home and claimed credit for what was being done by the EPI staff.

The technicians said the unsung EPI heroes had been tracing the contacts of coronavirus patients, collecting samples from suspected patients with the support of medical technicians, labelling them for transportation to labs at the hardest areas, and performing duties at quarantine and isolation centres.

They added that the EPI technicians conducted immunisation sessions at the district level, where mothers were told about the significance of immunising children up to 23 months against 10 diseases, including childhood tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pneumonia, pertussis (whooping cough), Hepatitis-B, meningitis, diarrhea and measles.

Insist EOC employees staying home since lockdown was enforced

The officials claimed that the highly paid EOC staff members had been staying home since the coronavirus-induced lockdown was enforced.

They said the province accounted for 92 of the countrywide 146 polio cases in 2019 and 19 of 41 cases reported in the current year until now.

The officials said KP recorded 16 of the 22 countrywide vaccine-derived polio virus (VDPV2) cases in 2019 and 38 of this year’s 42 cases.

They added that the VDPV2 had been eradicated worldwide in 2016.

A senior district health official claimed that the EOC, which was responsible for polio eradication, was presenting the work of EPI technicians as their own. “This attitude is demoralising our technicians,” he told Dawn.

The last National Immunisation Day campaign was conducted on Feb 17 and the SNID in five districts on March 16, cVDP2 case response in 16 districts from March 9 and since then, no campaign has been carried out.

“We are holding vaccination session while observing social distancing rules. The federal EPI recognised the KP’s work in far flung areas, like Kohistan and Chitral,” a senior official said.

A lack of coordination between EOC and EPI has also been reported.

Recently, the EOC coordinator removed the EPI director from three official WhatsApp groups. The director, who is the EOC secretary by virtue of his designation, had formally asked the coordinator about for his video statement wherein he had given the credit for Covid-19 work to EOC staff members only.

According to EPI director Dr Mohammad Salim, the polio workers were hired only for vaccination and that it’s the EPI vaccinators, who were on ground and acted as the real frontline workers.

He said the EPI coordinators and focal persons at the district level should be recognised.

“I along with three deputy directors have visited 14 districts of KP, where we saw only EPI technicians in Covid-19 activities,” he said.

When contacted, EOC coordinator Abdul Basit said not only polio but other EOC staff members were also involved in tracing and tracking Pakistanis, who had arrived from abroad on a daily basis.

“We have been presenting reports periodically to the chief secretary, who has assigned us this duty. Our surveillance system looks after both polio and Covid-19,” he said.

Mr Basit said the centre had deployed communication staff members to scale up public awareness of Covid-19.

He said the EPI technicians were also in the field.

“When I appreciate polio programme workers, they include EPI technicians as well,” he said.

The coordinator said the door-to-door campaign was against the Covid-19 protocol as it would cause the further spread of the virus.

“Indeed, the polio workers are also on the frontline. In North Waziristan, polio teams have found 1486 foreign travellers and held sessions on social distancing in far-flung villages, where people don’t have access to social, print and electric media,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2020