If Pakistan can handle Covid, why not polio, wonders IMB

Published December 27, 2020
A health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Lahore. — AFP/File
A health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Lahore. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) for Polio has said that if Pakistan could deal with Covid-19 and mobilise resources to check its spread, why can’t the same be achieved in the case of polio.

The board works on behalf of international donor agencies and issues reports on the performance of countries every six months.

In its report released after the board’s 19th online meeting, chaired by IMB Chairman Sir Liam Donaldson last month, it was revealed that from the beginning of 2016 until the time of its meeting in November 2020, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) spent $1.16 billion in Pakistan.

By early December, there had been 82 cases of type-I wild poliovirus and 104 cases of type-II vaccine-derived poliovirus (VDP) in the country.

Moreover, the large size of VDP outbreaks in Pakistan and Afghanistan has been declared a threat to other countries, especially the one in Pakistan, because large amounts of type-II vaccine will be deployed.

As a result, the poliovirus could transmit to communities outside the two countries as it had already been detected in sewage in Iran.

The IMB was of the view that Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan and the head of the National Emergency Operations Centre, Dr Rana Safdar, were overburdened as they were dealing with both Covid-19 and polio at the same time.

In November 2012, the IMB recommended travel restrictions on Pakistan that were implemented on May 5, 2014, following which it became mandatory for everyone travelling abroad to get vaccinated.

According to the report available with Dawn, since March 2020 the IMB had heard impressive accounts of the way in which polio eradication assets had been repurposed and are helping greatly in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Indeed, many people have spoken of a Covid-19 ‘silver lining’; this references the much better joint working of teams, and the dissolution of many organisational and professional boundaries. Specifically, given the rapid mobilisation of the Pakistani government’s response to Covid-19, people have asked: if Pakistan can do it for Covid-19, why can it not do it for polio,” the report stated.

Commenting on the special assistant on health, the report said: “As he came to the first meeting of the IMB in his new role, Dr Faisal Sultan made a very strong statement of commitment, both personal as well as professional, and reaffirmed that the country’s government will not be found lacking on polio eradication. He said that this will be demonstrated in a greatly improved performance in the weeks and months ahead.”

However, it further stated that in late December 2016, the World Health Organisation reported that Pakistan had achieved the lowest number of annual cases ever reported from the fewest number of affected areas of the country.

By that point in 2016, there had been 19 cases of type-I wild poliovirus and two environmental samples positive for type-II VDP (one case emerged later).

However, by early December in 2020, there were 82 cases of type-I wild poliovirus in Pakistan and 104 cases of type-II VDP, the report revealed.

While sharing that poliovirus had travelled between countries, it revealed: “Between April and June 2020, there was substantial cross-border, international spread. For example, from Pakistan to Afghanistan; Côte d’Ivoire to Mali; Guinea to Mali; Côte d’Ivoire to Ghana; Ghana back to Côte d’Ivoire; Central African Republic to Cameroon; and Chad to Sudan and also to South Sudan.”

A technical expert, requesting not to be named, said the IMB was quite right when it said that there was government’s will to deal with Covid-19 but such sincerity was not shown while combating polio in the last over three decades.

New Covid-19 strain

Dispelling rumours on social media about the new strain surfacing in Pakistan, National Institute of Health Executive Director Maj Gen Aamer Ikram said people should pay no heed to it.

“Though no such case has been reported, people should understand that mutation in ribonucleic acid viruses is normal. We have been doing genetic sequencing of samples of every passenger, coming from the UK, but it needs to be understood that the virus can arrive in Pakistan at any time as its incubation period is around six days and a patient arriving with no symptoms can develop the virus any time,” he said.

On the other hand, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) reported 63 deaths and 2,260 cases in a single day on Saturday.

As of Dec 26, total active cases in the country reached 39,177 with 316 patients on ventilators.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2020

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