The recent polio campaign in Pakistan aims to reach more than 4 million children across the country.
Pakistan initiated a seven-day countrywide campaign for polio vaccination on Monday, given that it is one of the only two nations in the world where the debilitating virus is still prevalent.
Up to this point in the year, Pakistan has documented five instances of the extremely contagious illness. The most recent effort to eliminate polio will focus on over 4.4 million children in various regions of the country, including Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.
In 2021, the South Asian country made significant progress in eliminating polio, with only one reported case of paralysis caused by the virus. However, there was a sudden increase in cases last year, with 20 recorded incidents. The virus is typically transmitted through contaminated water sources by carriers who have come into contact with fecal matter.
Out of the five cases reported this year, two were found in the largest city of Karachi, located in the southern province of Sindh. This is significant as the city had not recorded any cases in the past two years.
The spokesperson for the Emergency Operation Center in the province, Syed Nofil Naqvi, informed VOA that both instances involve children from Afghan families who have been living in Pakistan for an extended period of time.
Naqvi attributed the spread of the disease to movement across the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2023, Afghanistan, the only other country working towards eradicating the virus, has reported six cases.
Naqvi stated that the genetic makeup of the environmental samples in Pakistan is connected to Afghanistan.
In order to prevent the virus from spreading through travelers, Naqvi stated that polio teams administer vaccinations to children at bus stops and other locations where people are passing through.
According to Muhammad Zeeshan Khan, the deputy coordinator for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Emergency Operation Center, Bannu, a town in the northern province, was the source of all of Pakistan’s polio cases this year. He also mentioned that three families in the town had declined to have their children vaccinated.
I attempted numerous times to persuade them. While one family agreed to administer polio drops, their child had not yet received the necessary injection to develop immunity. This refusal resulted in all three children becoming paralyzed. According to Khan, the families were concerned that the vaccine could potentially harm their children.
The main cause for the continued presence of the polio virus in Pakistan is due to parents not allowing their children to receive the oral polio vaccine.
The polio workers and their security guards are often targeted by parents and militants who believe that the vaccination campaign is a plot by foreigners to make Pakistani children unable to have children or to give them substances that are not allowed for Muslims to consume.
In October, authorities in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa documented over 16,000 instances of refusal. Khan, the city of Peshawar’s provincial capital, had the highest number of refusals at nearly 8000, followed by Bannu and North Waziristan, where the majority of Pakistan’s polio cases were reported last year.
This year, there were 14 instances of violence against polio teams in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In order to combat these misunderstandings, officials have been actively involving community religious leaders and influential individuals, as well as launching costly advertising campaigns on television and radio, in an effort to persuade parents to immunize their kids.
However, some parents are unwilling and negotiate for unfulfilled civic requirements. According to the National Emergency Operation Center’s strategies for the current campaign, multiple communities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have declined to immunize their children until gas, roads, or teachers are provided.
Khan stated that our main worry is the child whose family has declined to receive vaccinations.
During each campaign period, numerous children are also not vaccinated because they are not at home or their families refuse to let the vaccination team enter if there is no male member present.
Unfortunately, recent data reveals that more than 13% of children in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, were not able to receive the vaccine during the last round. Similarly, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, approximately 1.2% of children, which amounts to over 90,000, were also unable to receive the vaccine.
According to Khan, a large number of the children who were not vaccinated eventually receive vaccinations as temporary guests in different communities.
Data shows that in Quetta, almost 50% of the children who were initially missed were eventually included.
However, the vaccination campaign in areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that share a border with Afghanistan may be delayed or cancelled indefinitely, mainly due to safety concerns.
As hundreds of thousands of polio workers and security personnel go door to door this week in areas facing a high risk of polio, Naqvi is hopeful Pakistan will get closer to eliminating the crippling disease.
According to Naqvi, we are now using a positive approach to deliver the message. Instead of posting signs that warn about polio in the area, we now focus on the goal of eradicating polio.