Covid can enhance resistance to polio vaccination in Pakistan: report

Updated 24 Aug 2020

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Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last two countries in the world where polio is endemic. — AFP/File
Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last two countries in the world where polio is endemic. — AFP/File

UNITED NATIONS: The Covid-19 pandemic has had some profoundly serious consequences for children’s health in Pakistan and Afghanistan, noted a report released this weekend by the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef).

The document is based on statistics collected from 136 countries that responded to a recent Unicef survey about socio-economic impact of the viral disease that has killed more than 800,000 people across the globe.

“Violence prevention and response services have been severely disrupted, leaving children at increased risk of violence, exploitation and abuse,” the surveyors reported.

Of the 136 countries, 104 reported a disruption in services related to violence against children. Around two-thirds of the countries reported that at least one service had been severely affected, such as polio vaccination in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

South Asia is among the regions that have the highest proportion of countries reporting disruptions in the availability of services.

In several instances, parents were too scared to take their children to hospital to complete vaccination

The report includes an interview with a member of the team that has resumed polio vaccination in Pakistan to protect children from a disease that can cause muscle-wasting, paralysis and death.

The team reported several cases of parents being too scared to take their kids to the hospital to complete their children’s polio vaccinations.

The polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan resumed earlier this month. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the last two countries in the world where polio is endemic.

The restart has been accompanied by new guidelines to ensure the safety of patients, and health workers. The safety measures include social-distancing and wearing masks.

In an interview with UN News, Husna Gul described how she and her colleagues reacted to the arrival of Covid-19 in Pakistan, and why she continues to put herself at risk.

Job loss was the most common impact of the crisis that polio workers in Pakistan noted when they resumed vaccination.

People they visited “have been asking us for ration provisions, and other health services,” Gul said. “Sometimes we have received abuse (from the people who lost their jobs).”

The report noted that before the pandemic the workers had reported “some real improvements in the ways that the community responded” to them. “But now, we are worried that their resistance to us, and our programme, may be increasing,” Gul said.

The Unicef team described the beginning of the pandemic as a “very unsettling time” for them. In Karachi, where Gul is based, her office gave her 10-day leave and told her to stay at home.

But, after returning to work, she caught Covid-19. She recovered but still suffers from the consequences.

“My body is still weak. I have swollen feet, and if I walk for more than 10 minutes, I will find myself sweating, and out of breath.”

Yet, she returned to work. “Yes, Covid-19 is dangerous, but polio is still endemic in this country. We must focus on both these diseases,” she said.

Gul said she was still worried about her personal safety. “I am a little afraid, but I think that I will be okay if I follow the standard procedures: wear gloves and a face mask and … frequently wash my hands,” she said.

She said she was also worried that the community’s resistance to polio vaccination would grow but was not willing to give up.

“It gives me inner happiness to know that I am helping my country, as part of a national cause,” she said.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2020