Students join the fight against polio in Lahore

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Lahore, March 31, 2013- Hands are waving excitedly as students gather at Al Meraj School in one of the poorest areas of Pakistan’s second largest city, Lahore.

“What is polio?” asks the teacher. “And who should be given the polio vaccine?”
“It’s a virus,” says one young student. “All children under five!” shouts another, before any of the other nearly 200 students can answer before her.

These children, aged as young as three and as old as 12 were part of an awareness session and quiz on polio and hygiene organized by the Communication Network (COMNet) for polio eradication, with the support of UNICEF.

The targeted school is located in Abu Bakar Siddique Colony, Bund Road, in the jurisdiction of Union Council 84, which is one of the 29 UCs that have been declared high risk for polio. High risk districts are identified due to the presence of wild polio virus, poor sanitation, low routine immunization and other factors.

This school provides free education to nearly 300 children from the neighbourhood, a neighbourhood which lacks even basic health and sanitation services, has limited or no access to safe drinking and not even a single public health facility for a population of more than 30,000. A substantial number of the students belong to the Pashtu-speaking community, which is a priority population for polio eradication since 46 of the 58 children paralysed by polio in 2012 were Pashtuns.

Pakistan is one of only three polio endemic countries in the world. In 2011, the country reported 198 cases, the largest number in the world. But thanks to significant work and commitment by the Government and partners, the situation improved significantly in 2012 with only 58 cases.

Children living in Abu Bakar Siddique Colony are at risk of contracting the polio virus. These awareness sessions are held in schools to educate the children on the debilitating impacts of polio, to increase acceptance for polio vaccination and encourage students to maintain good hygiene to help protect them, explained Omer Feroze District Health and Communication Support Officer of COMNet.
Omer is one of over a thousand COMNet staff across Pakistan’s high risk districts for polio who help to ensure parents understand polio and the importance of vaccine. UNICEF Pakistan supports communication and awareness activities through COMNet across Pakistan to increase acceptance for polio vaccine, raise public demand and address refusals.

An awareness session on polio, hygiene and importance of hand-washing was organized for the teachers of the school, Feroze explained, to build their knowledge base and then share the same with the students and prepare them for the quiz competition.
On the day of the quiz, the children came prepared and the winners of the quiz were awarded colour books and pastels.

Lahore is a concern for the spread of the wild polio virus as its presence has been confirmed through sewage samples collected from various parts of city. The sustained presence of wild polio virus in sewage, poor sanitation facilities, a huge transit and mobile population, has kept Lahore on the list of cities at risk with polio virus spread. The communication and awareness activities with special focus on school children has played a vital role to ensure protection of children in Lahore, which saw its last polio case in 2011.

So far in 2013, five children are confirmed with polio. None have been reported in the Lahore area.

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