PESHAWAR: The reluctance of parents to inoculate their children against poliomyelitis has been stumbling block in the way of polio eradication in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to vaccinators.

During an immunisation drive conducted in October, the province recorded 93,017 unvaccinated children including 75,843, who were not available when health workers visited their homes to vaccinate them.

Likewise, 17,174 children missed the anti-polio drops because their parents were not willing to vaccinate them against the crippling disease.

The relevant authorities hope breakthrough this year as the virus has been cornered and all the three fresh polio cases belong to the same union council in Bannu district. However, they are also perturbed over the unvaccinated children, in presence of whom the crippling ailment is unlikely to be eliminated anytime soon.

Reluctance of parents to vaccinate children termed main hurdle to polio eradication

Vaccinators told this scribe that more than 255,000 children in Bannu got oral polio vaccine but 11,465 others were not vaccinated because of the opposition of their parents. They said that parents were depriving their children of vaccination and exposing them to disabilities on different pretexts. They added that some parents said that vaccination was not allowed in Islam while other argued that medication was useful when the disease occurred.

“The most infamous argument advanced by such parents is that vaccines are designed by the western countries to render the recipients impotent and infertile and cut down population of Muslims,” they said.

Officials involved in polio vaccination say that they have deployed religious scholars, community elders and public representatives to brush aside the impression that vaccination is harmful or disallowed in religion.

They say that the people deployed by them are working hard. “But given the volatile situation, it cannot be said with certainty that these missed children can be covered and Pakistan would be able to stay polio-free for three years in a low to be pronounced free,” they add.

Last year, Pakistan reported 20 polio cases, all from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In 2021, only one case was reported in Balochistan while the year 2020 witnessed 84 cases. However, there is no letup as the virus has been found in nine cities including Kohat, Peshawar and Nowshera. Peshawar has also been a polio reservoir because it serves as transit for people from other districts as well as Afghanistan.

As per data, 19,920 children remain without vaccination. They include 11,826 missed and 8094 left out of immunisation because of their parents’ hesitancy.

The vaccinators, who put their lives at the razor’s edge, continue to take part in the campaign but they don’t have any authority to force the unwilling parents to vaccinate their children. Every year, five to six health workers and police, guarding them, are killed by unidentified assailants, who oppose vaccination.

The health workers mark the finger of the child after he or she gets vaccinated and register names accordingly. Parents force health workers for finger-marking of their children without administering the drops.

“Vaccinators do so because they are afraid of reprisals. The people, who don’t want vaccination also include educated people even medical doctors but they cannot be forced,” said officials.

Only a few parents bluntly refuse vaccination but most of them avoid it by saying that their children have already been given drops in hospitals. Others say that their children are out of homes with mothers or have gone to relatives’ houses.

The record of all people exist but there is a need of full-fledged coordination to ensure that 100 per cent children are immunised in every campaign to pave way for eradication of the crippling disease.

Poliomyelitis is the only childhood diseases, which can be completely wiped out through vaccination of children till five years.

Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2023

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