Crisis offers an opportunity for polio eradication in Pakistan
By Abid Hassan
Bannu, Federally Administered Tribal Areas FATA, 14 October 2014….In a world which has been largely free of polio for many years, Pakistan is a country where 206 children so far in 2014 have been left crippled for life by a disease that is easily preventable through the oral polio vaccine.
More than 70 per cent of the polio cases in Pakistan hail from the tribal area of North Waziristan where polio vaccination was banned in 2012 by local leaders causing severe damage to the national and global effort for polio eradication.
"Since the ban on vaccination, the entire population of North Waziristan has been inaccessible to any polio campaign, until recently.” says Fahadullah Khan who is seeking refuge in Bannu after being displaced as a result of an ongoing military offensive in the region.
Crisis or opportunity?
There are many like Fahadulah as the military operation in North Waziristan has now displaced more than one million people from their homes to other parts of the country. Although this brings forth a humanitarian crisis, it also offers an opportunity to administer polio drops to the previously inaccessible children. “We are now vaccinating all these displaced persons for polio and other diseases on a daily basis, people are receptive says Shafi ur Rehman who is an EPI Technician in the district of Bannu.
Most of the population displaced by the military operation in North Waziristan have moved to the settled areas in different parts of the country instead of refugee camps.The displacement of around one million persons in the high transmission season for polio with limited access to basic amenities poses threats to the health of the displaced individuals as well as the people residing in areas. However, access to the children who are migrated from NWA for the first time in two years, has given hope that intensive vaccination efforts in the latter half of this year will put Pakistan back on track in 2015 to eradicate Polio.
“People are changing their minds in favor of polio vaccination now and our misconceptions are being clarified.” says Shahid Nawaz whose family too was displaced during the military operation.
The Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has already vaccinated more than 700,000 displaced people, including nearly half a million children under the age of five have been vaccinated during rounds of door to door campaigns for both, the displaced and host communities.
"We have established permanent transit points near the IDP camps to vaccinate the population that is travelling while we are also offering OPV twice a week in the camps themselves for the children residing there. The third thing we are doing is perhaps the most important, that is to conduct campaigns in the host communities in districts adjacent to the Tribal Areas.” Says Dr. Raheem Khattak who is the deputy project director for EPI in Khyber Pakhthunkhwa
The challenge is huge. As long as the virus exists in some reservoirs like North and South Waziristan, the whole world will always be at great risk of an outbreak. In addition migration from a location where a single polio campaign has not taken place in two years makes it easy for the virus to travel as well.
Dr. Bilal Ahmed, the Polio team Lead for UNICEF, KP/FATA highlights the fact that Bannu is playing host to a large number of IDP’s and already 9 cases have been reported from there. He says that “the virus moves along with the people, it has gone from Fata into Bannu and to Lucky Marwat, and obviously if people travel from there to Karachi, then Karachi too will be at risk”.
In order to eradicate polio from Pakistan, every child needs to be protected and parents must agree to give their children two drops of polio vaccine during every campaign. ‘Two drops, every child, every time’ – this is what can make Pakistan a polio-free country.
Within the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, UNICEF works closely with the World Health Organization (WHO), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and other partners to support Pakistan’s Federal and Provincial Governments in the final push to eradicate polio forever in Pakistan.