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A preventable tragedy

January 24, 2013

WHAT started off as an epidemic in upper Sindh is fast turning into a national health emergency. According to the World Health Organisation, over 100 children have died countrywide of measles-related complications in the first three weeks of this month. Most of the deaths have been in Sindh, yet fatalities from Balochistan and Punjab have also been reported. There have been over 90 measles outbreaks in Pakistan since the beginning of this year, while thousands of children remain at risk. The epidemic became particularly acute in the last few weeks of 2012; over 300 deaths were reported. If we compare the figures for the whole of last year and those of the first three weeks this month, the magnitude of the problem becomes clear. In Sindh especially, malnourishment in children and the effects of back-to-back floods have been blamed for the high death toll. Yet along with poverty and natural disasters, human ineptitude is a major factor in aggravating the situation. There have been issues with service delivery in Sindh, as reports have indicated that vaccinators have not been performing and have fudged figures, leading to legitimate questions being raised about the government’s claims regarding immunisation coverage.

Clearly, the state took the problem lightly when it was emerging, despite the fact that medical professionals had warned that a disaster was in the making. Even now, when the magnitude of the crisis is apparent, the state is unmoved. It appears the death of a few hundred children due to a preventable illness is not an issue for those in power, who are too preoccupied with the machinations of politics. This callous attitude needs to change immediately. A national emergency must be declared and a plan of action to deal with the measles epidemic launched forthwith. All children in areas deemed vulnerable must be immunised, with strict surveillance to ensure that no one is left out. In the long term, the routine immunisation programme must be overhauled and regular public-awareness campaigns highlighting the importance of immunisation should be undertaken so that such a tragedy does not repeat itself.