This year has been troublesome for Pakistan not just because of the political and economic instability but also due to the reemergence of the poliovirus which after being dormant for almost 15 months resurfaced in April and has so far affected a dozen children crippling them for life.
Being so close to being polio-free, Pakistan’s dreams were all shattered in a single blow.
After being polio-free for over a year, 12 cases have been reported in the first half of the ongoing year from North and South Waziristan despite regular immunisation campaigns across the country. It is unfortunate that despite the government’s best efforts not much progress could have been made in all these years.
Indelible blue ink is used by health workers to mark and distinguish immunized children from the ones who have not been immunized. Reports on the recent polio patients revealed that most of the cases were of silent refusals in which parents used ink to make fake marks on their children’s finger eventually evading from immunization—a phenomenon that is discovered to be very common in the tribal belt. The report thus revealed that most of the children had never received any polio vaccine and had been highly susceptible to the poliovirus.
The refusals stem from conspiracy theories by religious groups that claim that the vaccination programme is part of a Western initiative to sterilize Muslim children. Another conspiracy theory suggests that the vaccines for polio are made with pig fat which is haram.
Believing in the same theories, during a routine immunization campaign in 2019, rumours were spread across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated polio vaccines. The rumors spread like wildfire, triggering mass panic. Mobs burned a village health center, blocked a highway and pelted cars with stones. Medical workers were harassed and threatened. Mosques made announcements that children were having cramps, vomiting and diarrhea after they were given ‘poisonous’ polio drops. Word went out on social media that some children had died. Panicked parents rushed their children to hospitals, overwhelming health authorities. In Peshawar alone, about 45,000 children were brought to hospitals complaining of nausea and dizziness. Officials described it as mass hysteria, asserting there had been no deaths confirmed.
Polio campaigns in the country are also widely threatened by violence from extremists who oppose the vaccination programme. Only a few weeks ago a polio team was attacked in North Waziristan by attackers riding motorbikes killing a health worker and two policemen providing security to the team. Another member of the team sustained injuries. In March, a female polio health worker was gunned down while suicide bombers have also targeted polio teams in the past.
Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the only two countries across the globe reporting live wild polio cases. Kabul has reported two polio cases in the ongoing year and share the same terror history of violence on health workers as Pakistan. A total of eight polio workers were killed across Afghanistan in separate incidents during a polio campaign at the beginning of the year causing fear and terror among the locals who already are on the edge following the takeover of Taliban in Afghanistan.
Even more alarming is the emergence of traces of polio virus after a span of 40 years’ in sewage samples in the UK. Between February and May, UK scientists found several samples containing closely related versions of the virus in wastewater at the London Beckton Sewage Treatment Works – the largest water treatment plant in the UK. Although the risk to the general public is extremely low since vast majority of the population is immunized against the disease during childhood the existence of the poliovirus strain only means that crippling disease is rearing its ugly head again.
A similar concern was voiced by the World Health Organization Polio IHR Emergency Committee which stated that the risk of international spread of poliovirus remains a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). The statement comes in the wake of a polio case reported in Malawai.
The health authorities in Malawi declared an outbreak of wild poliovirus type 1 after a case was detected in a young child in the capital Lilongwe. This is the first case of wild poliovirus in Africa in more than five years after Africa was declared free of indigenous wild polio in August 2020. Laboratory analysis showed that the strain detected in Malawi is linked to the one that has been circulating in Pakistan’s Sindh.
The menace of poliovirus can only be eradicated with joint efforts from all the stakeholders. Pakistan which remains the main source of the virus spread needs to find ways to convince people to inoculate their children against the disease. Taking religious scholars into confidence who can later preach others to help their children by immunizing them against polio would help the cause manifolds. Similar other initiatives need to be taken by the government to rid the nation from the disease once and for all.