- Vaccination drives under security threat
As if the continuing rise of confirmed polio cases across the country was not enough, vaccination drives to protect against the crippling virus have once again come under threat. An IED blast that killed one policeman and injured two others in Dera Ismail Khan adds to the serious challenges faced by the country in its fight against polio. 2019 saw an astronomical rise in polio cases; 144 as compared to just 12 in 2018 and 8 in 2017. Almost two months into 2020 and already there are 17 confirmed cases, that’s almost three cases a week. What is more worrisome than the strong resurgence of the virus that was on the verge of being completely eradicated from Pakistan, is the fact that no sound scientific rationale is available to explain it. Prime Minister Imran Khan has said many times that polio is Pakistan’s biggest priority, yet the spread of the virus is out of control and the best explanation he has come up with is that it is coming into the country through neighboring Afghanistan. This notion would have been plausible had there been a significant increase in cross-border movement of people between the two countries to explain 132 new cases reported in 2019. Perhaps an investigation into PM’s focal person on polio eradication, Babar Bin Atta, would provide better answers explaining how and why the polio outbreak occurred. His abrupt resignation that came after a growing number of complaints against him have been conveniently ignored by the government and no replacement has been hired so far.
There is a false narrative peddled by uneducated extremists that the polio vaccination harms children as part of some grand Western conspiracy to destroy Pakistan’s next generation. It is up to the government to invest in outreach programs that provide a robust counter-narrative to educate and help misunderstood parents who are putting their children’s future in danger by avoiding the necessary vaccination. Pakistan’s polio eradication programme is well-funded with partners such as the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. If indeed the PTI government is serious about polio eradication it should hire competent experienced professionals who can use the available resources responsibly, raise awareness about the virus and provide foolproof security to polio workers. Short of this, the virus will continue to spread, becoming increasingly difficult to control, making its eradication a near impossibility.