KARACHI, Feb 2: The government on Saturday decided to indefinitely put off an anti-polio campaign, which was set to begin on Feb 4, in view of the city’s deteriorating law and order situation.
“Yes, it has been postponed to revisit our security strategy. We will be meeting again on Monday with Dr Azra Afzal Pechuho to decide a future course of action,” said executive district health officer Dr Imdadullah Siddiqui, adding that the health minister had given directives that the anti-polio drive would be conducted in the presence of Rangers.
The drive, according to Dr Siddiqui, would be carried out in those high-risk union councils where a vaccination drive had to be called off in December last year because of the law and order situation. Several anti-polio workers were shot dead in Karachi in December while many others were targeted in other parts of the country after which the vaccination campaign was suspended across the country. It was partially resumed in the city last month, but not in the areas where vaccinators were attacked.
This year’s first polio case in the country was detected in the city on Friday. The victim was a two-year-old boy, Musharraf, resident of Bin Qasim Town’s Bhains Colony.
The boy was never vaccinated against polio because of his family’s misconceptions.
Meanwhile, medical experts have said challenges posed by polio could be met with success even in these volatile conditions if the government adopts an effective strategy to deal with security concerns and the propaganda against the vaccination drive. Creating a strong demand in the communities for vaccination is a must to secure children.
Prof Dr Anita Zaidi, head of the department of paediatrics and child health at the Aga Khan University, said the task was not difficult though the situation was grim.
“Our problem is the ‘persistently missed’ children who serve as a reservoir in the spread of polio. These pockets can easily be identified and working with trusted community elders motivated to vaccinate their children against all diseases, including polio,” she said.
Raising awareness of the disease and its prevention, according to Dr Zaidi, is critical.
The government needs to use the media, especially the electronic media, to educate the people about the significance of vaccinating their children, particularly against the nine diseases for which vaccination are administered free of cost,” she said, adding that unless a strong demand was created in communities for vaccination, eradication of polio would remain a dream.
She stressed the need to dispel the common misconceptions against the disease by seeking help from community elders and clerics, and anti-polio campaigns be decentralised by isolating the high-risk areas.
Dr Zulfiqar Ahmed Bhutta, head of the AKU’s women and child health division, said Pakistan was one of the three countries where endemic polio persisted and global eradication plans critically depended on control and eradication measures in Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.
He said: “Polio eradication challenges in all three countries is compounded by the fact that we are trying to do so in the midst of conflict and insurgency. With much disinformation around the polio programme and the oral vaccine, we have a small but significant group of people who are now threatening the programme with targeted violence (especially against women volunteers and workers) and a concerted move to demoralise the progamme staff. This security challenge is relatively new and serious and must be dealt with forthwith.”
Regarding the required foremost measures in the fight against the crippling disease, he said full security must be provided to polio programme teams and volunteers.
“The intelligence and security apparatus know much of what is going on and must act aggressively and pro-actively to weed out the terrorists who are targeting and threatening workers. This must be done alongside measures to counter the anti-polio propaganda and engage community leaders,” he said.
Referring to an AKU survey, he said the survey of 12 high-risk union councils in Karachi comprising a range of respondents and stakeholders suggested that there was much scope for improving community awareness and knowledge of polio and prevention strategies.
“There is a critical need to link polio measures to scaling up routine immunisation and also measures to improve environmental sanitation and hygiene,” he explained.
Dr Samrina Hashmi, president of the Pakistan Medical Association-Sindh, said that pediatricians in the public and private sectors had a consensus that the challenge posed by polio could never be met with success unless the government strengthened routine immunisation. The vaccination coverage across the country, she said, had already dropped from 86 per cent to 56pc.
“We need to have 100pc coverage of routine immunisation. Awareness raising is important and clerics and community elders of sensitive localities needed to be taken on board on this issue,” she said.