PESHAWAR: With officials blaming ‘fake’ finger marking for polio resurgence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, national health services minister Abdul Qadir Patel on Thursday visited the houses of two new polio cases in North Waziristan tribal district and ordered their rehabilitation.

The minister, who was accompanied by a team of the National Polio Programme, said it was heartbreaking to see a two-year-old girl and a 15-month-old boy of Mirali tehsil paralysed for life by a preventable virus, which had been eliminated from most parts of the world.

“This is a tragedy for all of Pakistan,” he told reporters.

The minister said one of the major challenges to polio eradication in the region was the shortage of women vaccinators.

He said more and more women should step out to prevent children from the crippling disease through vaccination.

Minister orders rehabilitation of new virus cases

“Mothers are the best caregivers. We [authorities] need them more than ever to reach out to families, spread awareness and protect children from polio,” he said.

Also in the day, National Coordinator of the Emergency Operation Centre Dr Shehzad Baig along with coordinator of the centre for the province Abdul Basit, Dr Sarfraz Khan Afridi of the World Health Organisation, provincial technical focal person for EOC Dr Imtiaz Ali Shah and other officials visited Mirali tehsil of North Waziristan district and met parents of the children affected with polio lately.

They also met members of the local administration, voiced concern about the new polio cases and called for effective public awareness of polio vaccination.

The local health officials told Dawn that the two polio cases, which were reported in April, had sent out a message to everyone that unvaccinated children continue to be a hurdle to the elimination of the virus from the country.

They insisted that the two children weren’t immunised against poliomyelitis though their parents falsely claimed their vaccination.

The officials said the two cases, which were reported in the country after a gap of 15 months, dealt a serious blow to the fight of health workers against the vaccine-preventable childhood disease.

They claimed that polio resurgence had come mainly due to the ‘silent’ vaccination refusals.

When contacted, North Waziristan assistant DHO Dr Shamsur Rehman said the visiting teams from Islamabad and Peshawar held meetings with jirga members and religious scholars and prevailed upon them to throw their support behind anti-polio efforts to do away with vaccination refusals.

“Following the emergence of fresh cases, we have collected blood sample from 62 children in both union councils and sent them to the National Institute of Health for serology examination to determine their vaccination status,” he said.

Meanwhile, vaccinators in the area complained that 110,000 children were targeted for polio vaccination and less than 1,000 vaccination refusals were reported.

“There’re compromised or silent hesitancy against polio drops, which is creating problems. Parents in the area, who aren’t willing to immunise their children, ask vaccinators to register their sons and daughters as vaccinated. The vaccinators mark fingers of the vaccinated children but the reluctant families get the fingers of their children marked without being vaccinated,” a senior health worker told Dawn.

He said the health workers accepted the fake finger marking demand to prevent reprisals by parents and their community.

North Waziristan district health officer Dr Gulistan Wazir said the vaccinators would be taking religious leaders and elders along during the future vaccination campaign to prevent fake finger marking and ensure that the targeted children receive drops.

“We have support of the district administration and paramilitary forces to dig out fake vaccination. In future, this issue would be resolved,” he said.

Meanwhile, the federal health minister spent a busy day in Bannu.

He met tribal chiefs, parents of polio-hit children and relevant government officials, and attended a briefing on major challenges to anti-polio initiative in six districts of Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan divisions.

Bannu commissioner Arshad Khan told him that the cross-border movement of nomad families and tribesmen between Pakistan and Afghanistan was among the various reasons for resurgence of poliovirus in Bannu division.

He also shed light on the steps and measures his administration had taken to contain the spread of polio virus after the detection of two cases in North Waziristan district.

The minister told reporters at the commissioner’s office that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had taken a note of the surfacing of polio cases and his visit to the southern district was meant to know about the issues relating to the eradication of polio.

He urged religious scholars, civil society activists and journalists to cooperate with the health authorities and other stakeholders for making Pakistan polio-free.

Published in Dawn, May 13th, 2022

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