ISLAMABAD: While Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for polio eradication is scheduled to review Pak-Afghan progress at the upcoming Doha meeting, the reemergence of virus in Karachi, Quetta block and Peshawar-Khyber has become a cause of concern for health experts.

A polio expert, who had held a key position at the National Emergency Ope­ra­tion Centre (NEOC), said three core areas — Karachi, Quetta block (Quetta, Pishin, Killa Abdullah, Chaman) and Peshawar-Khyber — have once again become a hub for poliovirus transmission to rest of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“In March 2021, all three [reservoirs] had been cleared of the virus due to extraordinary effort during the pandemic focusing both on the quality of door-to-door campaigns as well as the routine immunisation coverage,” he said.

According to the polio expert, the loss of focus by the partners-led programme and the inability to reach newborns diluted the immunity level, allowing the virus to attack back with full force.

He was of the opinion that Pakistan was back to the 2019 situation, as the virus was being detected at all sites. Asked about the way forward, he said the only solution was to hold the programme accountable.

He explained that meetings of TAG were scheduled in Doha from May 22 to 25 during which the progress of Pakistan and Afghanistan would be reviewed.

But usually, these meetings end with appreciating the ongoing performance and urging the partners to do more, he said.

TAG is an independent body that offers advice and recommendations to health ministry and partners on polio eradication programme.

A document of the Ministry of National Health Services, available with Dawn, also indicated that the government had either failed or was reluctant to ensure accountability.

An office memorandum, signed by health ministry’s programmes director Dr Mariyam Sarfraz, a copy of which was also sent to NEOC national coordinator Dr Shahzad Baig and several other stakeholders, stated: “The Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives has brought to our attention that during a meeting, the attitude, tone and behaviour of the NEOC national coordinator was not appropriate to suit the decorum of the forum.”

Referring to the meeting of the Executive Committee of National Economic Council (Ecnec), the document stated: “That the national coordinator strongly criticised sanctity of the highest development project approving forum i.e. Ecnec, and questioned the powers of Ecnec in the subject project [emergency plan for polio eradication].”

“The inappropriate behaviour exhibited by you [the NEOC national coordinator] is both unacceptable and unprofessional,” it added.

Such behaviour reflects poorly on you and undermines the collaborative and respectful environment the ministry strives to maintain.“

It said that the NHS secretary took serious notice of the matter and directed to convey his displeasure to the national coordinator on “such misconduct”.

The secretary has warned the official to be careful in future and adh­ere to the highest standards of professionalism.

However, Dr Baig told a media briefing that he was doing his best to control the virus of the crippling disease.

“The fact is that virus was not being controlled in Pakistan but after my arrival in 2021 number of cases was reduced. Moreover, I believe in collective efforts to address the issue,” he said.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2024

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