KARACHI: Amid growing challenge of the coronavirus pandemic, the Sindh healthcare system suffered another blow when its Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) was suspended due to a province-wide strike of thousands of vaccinators, putting hundreds of thousands of children at risk of 11 serious diseases, it emerged on Sunday.

Some 5,000 vaccinators are scheduled to stage a sit-in outside the Karachi Press Club (KPC) on Monday (today) seeking their pay scale at par with their counterparts in Punjab, payments of dues and confirmation of their services.

They said some 3,000 centres across the province were closed for weeks and the Sindh health department was actually lying only to satisfy its donors and international bodies.

“The health minister is actually misled by officials and ministry’s organisations,” said Khuda Bux Qureshi, the chief of vaccinators’ body, which is set to stage a sit-in today.

‘Minister misleads people’

“The minister then misled people asking them to get their children vaccinated. The fact is that the vaccination programme in Sindh has been suspended for an indefinite period. Children are not being vaccinated for any of the 11 diseases. We suggest the government to meet our demand and help children get vaccinated,” he said.

Scores of vaccinators ready to stage a protest sit-in in front of KPC today

Only last week, the Sindh government came up with a claim that despite Covid-19 scare and healthcare workers testing positive for the novel coronavirus, all the vaccination centres of the EPI in Karachi and Hyderabad are 100 per cent functional.

A Unicef-supported third-party monitoring and evaluation organisation, the Tameer-e-Khalaq Foundation (TKF), told this to Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho during a quarterly EPI review meeting a few days ago. The TKF also told the minister that vaccinators were available to vaccinate children against 10 vaccine-preventable diseases.

Even EPI Programme Director Dr Akram Sultan had said that despite the pandemic and the scare among parents as well as vaccinators, EPI services had not been suspended in the province. He said that the programme had slowed down in Sindh during the first two months, but EPI centres had started to reopen, and now in two divisions, all the vaccination centres were functional.

Protest may move to CM House

However, within a few days the situation has changed altogether and the provincial system is feared to face another challenge.

“Our protest is for an indefinite period,” said Mr Qureshi of the vaccinators’ body. “We are peaceful and enjoy every legal and constitutional right to lodge our protest. We expect the democratic government to respond positively. But make no mistake. If we are not heard, we will move our protest venue to the CM House.”

With the World Health Organisation’s support, extended outreach services were launched in all districts between June 15 and June 27 with plans of vaccinating 200,000 children under the age of two against the 11 diseases.

However, the target is feared to be missed amid protest of the vaccinators and no alternative plan is in place from the government.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2020