The polio story | Pakistan Today

The polio story

  • A disease overshadowed by covid-19

While Covid-19 takes its toll in Pakistan; polio, the disease that has been around much longer, has made a comeback. The WHO also extended its travel restrictions to Pakistan earlier this year for the same reason.

Not that polio had ever gone. According to the WHO newsletter the number of cases of polio declined from 306 in 2014 to 54 in 2015, 20 in 2016, 8 in 2017, and just 12 in 2018. However, in 2019 the polio eradication programme witnessed a significant spread of the virus and reported 144 polio cases across all provinces. So far in 2020, 7 cases have been reported from various provinces.

And who knows how many are out there that have not come on record?

If that does not sound like too many, keep in mind that one infected person in turn infects around 200 others. It is crucial that this disease is entirely eliminated if we are to gain any kind of victory over the terrible disabilities it causes.

we need greater attention paid to the matter by the country’s leaders, a rational, aggressive, sustained and organised programme which needs to be supported by security agencies to protect those who are employed to do this job. We need greater funds so that these people can be better paid, and we must make sure that the vaccines that are being delivered are of a high standard. We also need education programmes that will allow the population to appreciate the terrible consequences of hindering these eradication programmes. Which government is willing to do this?

Pakistan and Nigeria are the only two countries in the world where polio remains a threat to the population. Those children and adults you see on the street with wasted, useless limbs, most of them are victims of this dreadful disease which once threatened the entire world.

Polio is caused by any one of three viruses, type 1, 2 and 3. All of them must be eradicated, in fact two of them virtually have been by means of vaccines. Once upon a time there was no vaccine to combat the disease, and although many people recovered from the infection, many did not. Those who did not became disabled for life and some of them died.

There was a polio pandemic in the early 1900s.

In 1955 the first polio vaccine developed by Dr Jonas Salk was used, and another developed by Dr Alfred Sabin was used in 1961. The world owes much to these two men.

By 1988, when it was estimated that 350,000 children around the world had fallen victim to polio, the WHO became one of the founding members of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative which organised mass vaccination against the disease around the world. Organised teams went from house to house dispensing polio drops to vaccinate children against the disease. It took the concerted effort of parents, the Rotary Club, political and religious leaders and organisations to bring the world to the stage where Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria remained the only three countries on earth with reported cases of polio. This year, Nigeria went off that list when Africa was declared polio-free. It now remains for Pakistan and Afghanistan to achieve what even the poorest countries in Africa have managed to do, free their people from this threat.

Unfortunately those very people who helped eradicate polio around the world hamper that achievement in Pakistan. Our leaders appear to be more interested in ‘nabbing’ each other and working towards re-election and their own self-interest than helping the people they were elected to serve. Poliomyelitis is a highly infectious disease which spreads person to person contact, via the faeco-oral route, and even by contaminated food and water. The neglected sewage systems in Pakistan’s cities, such as those that have led to large scale flooding in Karachi, are certain to lead to a greater incidence of this and other diseases. The virus has already been detected in these areas and in other areas where the water is contaminated.

As for religious leaders, they have, many of them, prevented this country from reaching several of its goals. The eradication of polio has sadly been just one of those goals.

Covid-19 has now added to the hindrances in the way of polio eradication because parents are wary of going to clinics and hospitals to have their children vaccinated, in areas where workers cannot visit, or in the case of families who prefer to visit their personal physician for the purpose.

A year ago today a terrorist commander in North Waziristan threatened women polio workers. He ordered them to stop doing their job or suffer the consequences. As a result more than 40 polio workers quit their job in that area. One of the reasons behind this suspicion is the fake vaccination programme funded by the CIA. That fake programme led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden in his hideout in Abbottabad, but it left behind a deep suspicion of such programmes in the minds of the local populace. That undercover action has since led to the death of workers, and of victims to polio.

There are other hindrances, such as if an area is not easily accessible. Pakistan has no shortage of such places. And then there is terrorism.

Aside from the incident in North Waziristan mentioned above, a couple of years ago two polio workers were killed and three others kidnapped in Mohmand Agency. Earlier this year in 2020 two polio workers were killed in Swabi. The reasons have been distrust of the vaccination based on traditional and religious biases.

Indeed it takes courage to take part in this programme in Pakistan, yet most of the polio workers are women.

The Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme newsletter applauds these workers, one of whom is a middle aged woman living and working in Karachi. She not only supervises the vaccinating teams but moves around on a large four-wheeler bike. You have to be a woman living in Pakistan to appreciate the courage it takes to do each of these things. She says she belongs to the area she works in, and because of this the people who live there, but belong mostly to the tribal areas of Pakistan and are distrustful of the vaccination programme for all the reasons given above, trust her and she is able to accomplish what a stranger might not have achieved.

It is obvious therefore that we need to eradicate this disease from Pakistan. But like with most issues we need greater attention paid to the matter by the country’s leaders, a rational, aggressive, sustained and organised programme which needs to be supported by security agencies to protect those who are employed to do this job. We need greater funds so that these people can be better paid, and we must make sure that the vaccines that are being delivered are of a high standard. We also need education programmes that will allow the population to appreciate the terrible consequences of hindering these eradication programmes. Which government is willing to do this?

Rabia Ahmed

The writer is a freelance columnist. Read more by her at http://rabia-ahmed.blogspot.com/



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