End of polio?

Published October 24, 2021

AFTER a long struggle, the reward is finally in sight. With only a single case of wild poliovirus reported this year from Balochistan and a steady decrease in environmental samples, the goal of eradicating polio may well be realised soon. On World Polio Day today, this should be a happy thought for Pakistan. According to Omar Abdi, Unicef deputy executive director, the country had been close to eliminating polio before “but right now we are closest to the finish line”. Mr Abdi said that the government too was committed, while a continuous supply of vaccinations had ensured a reduction in polio cases. Even environmental samples, he said, had shown a drastic decrease in polio positivity. The national polio programme can take heart from the fact that its hard work is finally paying off and being acknowledged globally.

However, the race is not over. Only three months ago in June, Unicef officials expressed concern over the thousands of “invisible children” in the country. While they agreed that Pakistan had made considerable immunisation gains, thousands of children were still susceptible, they said, and should be vaccinated. “There is a group of children called the ‘missing children’ whose parents are refusing for them to receive vaccines…. They are not easy to find. They don’t go to schools or they don’t have birth certificates. These are invisible children.” The officials believed that what was required was to hunt down these missing children and persuade their families to allow them to be vaccinated in what has been described as the ‘last mile’ of polio eradication. Surely the national polio programme would have reached out to the families of missing children to vaccinate them. However, even if the number of unvaccinated missing children has greatly reduced, thus putting Pakistan in a position where polio eradication appears to be achievable, three months are not enough to track down and reach all the missing children. Expert opinion suggests that it takes multiple doses of the polio vaccine to develop immunity against the disease. Pakistan needs three zero-case years to be declared polio-free. But with routine immunisation in disarray in Afghanistan (the only other country where polio remains endemic) after the Taliban takeover, the authorities here cannot afford to relax just yet. Another strong, final push to vaccinate children, missing or otherwise, in the border areas is still required to make Pakistan a polio-free country.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2021

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