DESPITE the existing challenges to polio eradication efforts in the country, this year has offered some much-needed respite. So far, only one case of the wild poliovirus has surfaced in Balochistan, while eight cases of the circulating vaccine-derived poliovirus type 2 (cVDPV2) have emerged in the country. Last year, 84 cases of wild poliovirus and 135 cases of cVDPV2 had been reported. The low number of cases have been reported despite the fact that for at least five months of 2020, polio vaccination campaigns had been suspended owing to Covid-19. Though this present reduction might be an encouraging sign, Pakistan still has a lot of ground to cover in terms of fixing a number of structural problems in its polio eradication efforts and tackling extremist mindsets that oppose immunisation.
Pakistan is only one of the two countries in the world where polio remains endemic, the other being Afghanistan. Pakistan came close to eradicating polio in 2018, but the disease has made an aggressive resurgence since 2019. This was attributed to a number of lapses in the polio programme and related government policies and infrastructure, according to the International Monitoring Board, the top global body monitoring polio eradication efforts. An IMB report released in February declared Lahore as the epicentre of polio transmission in the country and strongly criticised the provincial government’s lapses. Meanwhile, attacks on polio workers by extremist groups have also witnessed a resurgence. In January, a policeman was killed in KP’s Karak district; earlier, another had been killed in Bannu. Vaccination campaigns are underway in districts of Sindh and Balochistan, and also in Islamabad. Polio workers are again risking their lives at a time when the third wave of Covid-19 has gripped the country. The authorities need to double down and boost awareness campaigns and improve the management of the polio-related infrastructure so that this disease can be defeated. As the IMB pointed out in its report last year, if Pakistan can battle Covid-19 effectively, why not polio?
Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2021