ISLAMABAD: The Technical Advisory Group (TAG) for polio eradication has shown concerns about the deteriorating situation of the disease in Pakistan.

Data shared at a TAG meeting held in Qatar showed that Pakistan’s situation was worse than the war-ridden Afghanistan.

TAG is an independent body charged with advising and making recommendations to the ministry of health and partners on polio eradication programme policies, strategies and operations. It held meetings with the health departments of Pakistan and Afghanistan from May 22 to 25 in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

An official of the polio programme who attended the meeting, whishing not to be quoted, told Dawn that TAG was concerned on the poliovirus surge and the current programme trajectory in both the countries, more so in Pakistan.

“Although the detailed report of the meeting will be released in two weeks, we faced an embarrassing situation as all the gains by Pakistan in 2021 have been lost and the virus has re-emerged in three blocks i.e. Quetta, Karachi and Peshawar-Khyber,” he said.

According to a document used for the briefing at the TAG meeting and available with Dawn, outside the core reservoir districts, 44 got infected since the last TAG meeting held in June 2023 in comparison with eight infected between previous two TAGs — with almost six times jump.

The document showed that during the same time in Afghanistan, the infected districts were only doubled from eight to 18 compared to the six-fold difference in Pakistan.

While showing major risk of the reservoirs becoming endemic again, the document mentioned Pakistan’s blocks of Peshawar, Quetta/Pishin, Quetta/Chaman and Karachi. However, Afghanistan’s only Kandhar/Hilmand block was mentioned in the document. The official said the meeting was chaired by Dr Jean-Marc Olivé (TAG chair) along with members.

“The Afghan health minister led the Afghan delegation. All national and regional teams were there. From Pakistan, neither Coordinator to PM on Health Dr Malik Mukhtar Ahmed Bharath nor Secretary Health Nadeem Mehboob could attend the meeting. Director General Health Dr Ahmad Kazi virtually attended the closing session on behalf of the government. However, national and four provincial coordinators attended the meeting. WHO Global Polio Director Aidan O’Leary and Director Polio Dr Hamid Jafari also attended the meeting,” he said.

The representatives of all Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) partners, including WHO, Unicef, Rotary, CDC, BMGF and Gavi were also present.

It is worth mentioning here that on May 25, Pakistan reported the third polio case of the current year. The latest victim was a 12-year-old girl, a resident of Kili Malak Haqdad, Darozai union council of Killa Abdullah. It was the third case from Balochistan province this year. Last year, six polio cases were reported in the country, four from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two from Karachi.

Dr Malik Mukhtar in a statement said it was incredibly tragic that another child was affected by polio in Balochistan. “Polio is a terrible illness that changes not just the child’s life but also the whole family. The government is bringing the polio vaccine to citizens’ doorsteps in multiple polio vaccination rounds. I urge families to understand the risk this disease poses to children and make sure that they vaccinate all their children under the age of five when the polio worker shows up to their homes,” he added.

Coordinator for the National Emergency Operations Centre for Polio Eradication Dr Shahzad Baig said: “We have already conducted four polio vaccination campaigns this year, including two nationwide campaigns to boost children’s immunity and we will be conducting another campaign in June.”

A polio expert, wishing not to be named, said all the reports and data were already showing that the core reservoirs of Karachi, Quetta block and Peshawar-Khyber had become safe heavens for the virus.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2024

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