Our greatest fears have materialized. First that Pakistan is one of the only two countries in the world still struggling to root out polio and save future generations. And the other that travel restrictions have been imposed on us. Anyone travelling outside of Pakistan will have to be vaccinated against polio regardless of age. It has been a year now that these restrictions were placed and despite several efforts polio cases continue to surface with this total so far at 29. In fact the country broke its own record of 14 years when number of polio cases reported last year crossed the three hundred mark.
Until last year there were three countries from where polio has not yet been eradicated- Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Nigeria however now claims to be polio free for no new cases have been reported and with the help of World Health Organisation(WHO), they intend to maintain this status for in years to come.
In view of the security situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Afghan refugees and IDPs hailing from FATA have been forced to migrate to different cities across Pakistan. Coming from inaccessible areas, their children have not been vaccinated and hence carry polio and other life threatening communicable diseases with them to places they settle in. Those who reach refugee and IDP camps get registered and vaccinated but others remain at high risk and pose grave danger to other children as well.
The problem with Pakistan and Afghanistan however is not just in the restive security situation, but it lies at several levels. Refusals of parents to get their children vaccinated, inaccessible children/ families, lack of resources, untrained staff, and difficulty in maintenance of cold chain. Then there are also the myths associated with anti-polio vaccine, for instance, it causes sterility; is ineffective, causes autism, is poisonous etc. All these myths have been brushed away time and again by local and international researchers but in vain.
Every country that takes pride in wiping out the threat of polio virus has done so in by collaboration of public, and private sectors as well as the seriousness of authorities concerned and willingness of the people. Take Nigeria for an example, where local leaders took the vaccine themselves to set precedence in convincing their people that it was not harmful or poisonous in any way.
Another example is of US where the scare of paralysis as a result of polio drove the entire country to take part in a campaign against this deadly but preventable virus during the 1950. Huge donations were made for the development of the anti-polio vaccine. Volunteer men and women took it upon themselves to ensure every child was administered with this anti-polio vaccine and strict penalties were put in place to deal with refusals. Within a period of few years they had achieved a polio free country.
With lack of education and exposure, religious and cultural influences deeply engrained in our society, there is need for religious and community leaders to come forward and invalidate the rumours and myths.
We need to follow the example of other countries for a polio-free Pakistan. Authorities have been taking all possible measures but until there is willingness from the people to protect their children, eradicating polio may remain an unachievable goal.
Story first published: 31st August 2015