Now Pakistan truly trapped in possibly the worst polio crisis it has ever faced. Despite the commitment shown by the government to curb the crippling virus, there is no letup in their cases as more cases are rapidly emerging in different parts of the country. The number of polio cases this year reached 12 on Saturday, which is equal to the number for the whole of 2017, which was the last year when progress was shown in the national effort to eliminate this dreaded disease. Four new cases of polio have been reported from Sindh and Khyber- Pakhtun¬khwa, taking the tally already to 12 in the first two months of current year. This increase in polio cases is very disturbing and alarming. Ever since the PTI took over in 2019, things have got out of hand, and Pakistan has only fallen back in the struggle to eliminate the disease. There were 94 cases in 2019, and 33 in 2018. One of the problems has been that the PM’s first Focal Person on Polio Eradication, Babar Ata, resigned because he wanted to look after an ailing parent. His replacement, Dr Amanullah Abro, does not seem to have got a proper handle on the job, because the rate of infection only seems to be speeding up.
Instead of doing something about the problem, Prime Minister Imran Khan has blamed Afghanistan, which he says is sending cases over. It should be noted that Afghanistan’s other neighbours, Iran and China, also neighbours ofPakistan, and Pakistan’s neighbour, India, have eliminated polio, and have never accused a neighbour of being responsible. The only other country in the world which still has polio infection, Nigeria, also does not have any neighbours complaining, though there are four of them. Nigeria has moved further than Pakistan and Afghanistanalong the path of ridding itself of the scourge of the polio virus, and the WHO has declared that the virus is no longer endemic to the country. Unlike Pakistan, there have been no new cases reported from it since 2014. It seems thatPakistan and Afghanistan are destined to be the last two countries where the poliovirus will still exist in the wild, and where polio could still be caught.
We need to question however if the social media efforts to sabotage the drive against polio are sufficient reason for a gigantic failure. The WHO has warned that travel restrictions may be imposed on Pakistan given the extent of the polio virus’s hold on the country and unless other measures are considered to tackle the problem. Pakistan has the highest rate of polio. In Afghanistan, the only other endemic country, around two dozen cases have been reported for 2019. This crisis needs to be taken up with urgency and placed at the top of the government priority list. There are indications that this has not always happened.
Since it is the matter of life and future of our young souls, all the stakeholders including political parties and religious leaders should sit together and try to address the loopholes in the existing anti-polio strategy. There should be no politics on this sensitive issue. We rather will ask the government to form a special Joint Committee of Parliament on Polio to formulate a way forward that ensures hundred per cent coverage as well as proper security for the polio workers. A massive awareness campaign through print and electronic media should be launched to let people know what polio is and what its consequences are. People should be made aware of the importance of polio vaccine. They should particularly be convinced that vaccine is very effective and is absolutely not harmful in any way but important to save their children from lifetime disability. The matter needs to be raised to the level of a national emergency. There have been obvious failures and mistakes. Unless these are amended, the problem will grow worse. All provincial governments – and the federal government – need to make sure they get on this with the seriousness this issue demands. This is about the future of our children.