WHILE Pakistan has been relatively luckier than most countries in preventing a high Covid-19 infection rate and death toll, the polio monster — which has been vanquished everywhere except in Pakistan and Afghanistan — has continued to cripple youngsters. As warnings are issued about a second wave of coronavirus infections, the fact that some 80 polio cases have been reported this year alone has slipped through the cracks. Today, as World Polio Day is observed by an international community that, for the most part, has rid itself of the disease, considerable introspection is required at our end. It is clear that the incidence of polio is not only rising, but that it is doing so with a vengeance.
The alarm was also raised by the global polio watchdog in its last assessment in August, when it warned that cases of both wild and vaccine-derived poliovirus were going to rise steeply in the country. Though the authorities might blame this on the ongoing pandemic, the Independent Monitoring Board report and other evidence indicate that problems began way before the pandemic struck, though the more recent emergency did exacerbate matters and put every other health issue on the back-burner. The IMB report has questioned the structural and technical capabilities of the country’s polio programme, and identified negligence in key areas, for instance, failing to appoint doctors to spearhead the polio response in eight super-high risk union councils of Karachi. However, despite all its problems, the polio programme proved to be useful in controlling the spread of Covid-19 as the vast network of community health workers was utilised for contact tracing. Vaccination campaigns resumed in July after a hiatus of four months, but full resumption of anti-polio efforts will take time and some rethinking on the part of the authorities. A workable solution is required to synergise and expand the existing community health network to include local doctors to combat Covid-19 and polio — both highly communicable illnesses — at the same time and not at the cost of the other.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2020