ISLAMABAD: A day after the detection of what is being termed ‘the Pakistani variant of poliovirus’ in Africa, health authorities said this strain has not been detected in Pakistan since the year 2019.

It could not be confirmed when and how the virus travelled from Pakistan to Malawi, where a three-year-old girl was reported as having contacted the virus.

The development came a day after the co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation praised Pakistan’s polio programme as ‘inspiring’ during his maiden visit to Islamabad.

Dr Faisal Sultan, special assistant to the prime minister on health, told Dawn on Saturday that the strain of poliovirus detected in Malawi must have been circulating in the country for at least a few years, since it had not been detected in Pakistan since 2019.

Strain not seen across the country since 2019, says PM’s aide on health

He also asserted that the country has been fully implementing international health regulations since 2014, due to which no person can travel abroad from Pakistan without taking polio drops.

Health expert Dr Nadeem Jan told Dawn that it would be unfortunate to link the virus with Pakistan, as the strain had been eradicated from the country. According to him, the variant used to circulate in Sindh until three years ago. “It means that the virus was transported to Malawi and has been circulating in the country (Malawi) since 2019, because it has never been detected in Pakistan since then.”

This strain is known as YC2 and was previously called the R4B5C4C2 strain. According to Dr Jan, the strain was initially reported in the areas of Sajawal, Thatta and Badin in Sindh, from where it travelled to Karachi. Later, he said, it disappeared from Pakistan.

“The detection of one case shows that potentially hundreds of children have been infected there, because one in 200 infected children is paralysed. It shows that there is immunity gap in the country [Malawi] due to nutritional, water and sanitation issues,” he noted.

Replying to a question, Dr Jan said Islamabad had never denied that it did have the poliovirus, but insisted that the strain reported in Malawi should not be linked with Pakistan.

“A few years ago, the detection of vaccine-derived poliovirus was also linked with Pakistan, when we had nothing to do with it,” he remarked.

When contacted, the PM’s aide told Dawn that although the strain had been linked with the version that was once circulating in Pakistan, it must be noted that it had disappeared in 2019.

“I believe that further analysis will show where it was hiding for two years. There can be many pockets in the world with ‘immunity gap’ and such pockets are perfect for the virus to hide and circulate there in case of weak surveillance,” Dr Sultan said.

He was of the opinion that Pakistan’s polio surveillance was the strongest in the world, as the county was making all-out efforts for polio eradication. “So chances of missing any case are next to impossible,” he said.

Covid-19 cases drop

Meanwhile, number of coronavirus cases detected in a day across the country dropped further.

The National Command and Coordination Centre on Saturday stated that 1,983 cases and 26 deaths were reported in a day.

It was the lowest number of cases since January 10 when 1,467 persons had tested positive for Covid-19 in a single day. The national positivity ratio remained 4.15 per cent, while 1,439 patients were hospitalised.

Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2022

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