WITH Pakistan in the decisive stage of the battle against polio, every vaccination campaign is of significance as it brings the country closer to victory in the race against the crippling virus. Last year ended on a positive note, with only one case of the wild poliovirus reported from Balochistan. With a consistent decrease in reported polio cases as well as in the detection of the virus in environmental samples, Unicef described Pakistan as “closest to the finish line”. Previously, the body had aired concerns about the immunisation coverage and children being left out of vaccination drives. In 2021, Unicef officials had described these “invisible” children as the last mile of polio eradication in the country. Though the number of children who did not receive the vaccine at all or not according to schedule — due mainly to parental refusal and factors such as internal migration or not being registered in official records — had reduced considerably, complete eradication still seemed some distance away. Aggravating this situation was the fact that polio vaccinators and the security officials protecting them were routinely targeted by those suspicious of the vaccine. Against this backdrop, the sub-national polio immunisation campaign, which kicked off across the country on Sunday, is important as it aims to target the missing children, who remain susceptible to polio.
Vaccine hesitancy that emanates chiefly from notions that the drive to inoculate children is part of a Western ploy has been a major hindrance in polio eradication efforts. To counter such retrogressive ideas, it is imperative that the health authorities continue to engage religious and other community leaders who exercise influence in their respective areas and can convince the people of the efficacy of the vaccine. One notable example is that of Mufti Qazi Yahya Khan, a cleric from Balochistan, who advocates the administration of the polio vaccine and has attempted to raise awareness through religion itself. One hopes that efforts such as his are encouraged by state authorities so that conspiracy theories can die down.
Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2022