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HomeGo To PakistanPakistan can’t win the fight against polio till it beats the anti-vaxxer...

Pakistan can’t win the fight against polio till it beats the anti-vaxxer sentiment

Though Karachi is a historic polio reservoir, most of the recent cases have been from North Waziristan, a Pakistani Taliban stronghold till recently.

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New Delhi: Pakistan’s polio count has risen to 18 after a three-month-old child was reported affected by the wild poliovirus. Earlier in June, there were wild poliovirus cases reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, including a 15-month-old child. A major reason for Pakistan not being able to eradicate the virus is the deep skepticism among people regarding vaccination programmes. Myth and misinformation also play a negative role.

Pakistan has been fighting against this virus for a long time but a complete eradication still seems far. 147 polio cases were reported in 2019 while the numbers came down to 84 in 2020 and 1 in 2021, respectively.

Poliomyelitis, commonly known as polio, is an infectious viral disease that affects children under the age of five, mostly transmitted through faeces. It spreads quickly in places with poor hygiene and sanitation systems, and is preventable only through vaccination.

While the WPV2 and WPV3 have been eradicated, the WPV1 virus remains endemic to two countries– Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 2014, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan was declared “the world’s largest reservoir of endemic poliovirus” by the WHO.

In the past week, samples for the virus were detected in Karachi, Lahore and Swat among others. Karachi has been a historic polio reservoir and remains categorised as a high-risk area for the disease. Yet, except two, most of the recent cases of polio have been from North Waziristan, which was until recently a Pakistani Taliban stronghold.


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The anti-vaxx sentiment

Reports of vaccination teams coming under attack is also frequent in the country. On 9 September, a polio vaccination crew came under terrorist attack, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region. Four police persons were killed in the incident. Earlier in June this year, a vaccination team was attacked in North Waziristan, the hotspot of polio cases in Pakistan. More than 100 health workers have been killed by militant groups during vaccination programmes.

While the government has been constantly addressing these issues, the anti-vaccination sentiment remains significant across regions, especially after the 2019 incident in which hundreds of children had to be rushed to the hospital after having been administered polio doses. Pakistan has also seen a case of divorce after a mother vaccinated her children against the virus.

A Lancet report from 2019 noted that children were being given more doses than the recommended number by WHO, which led to mistrust in the general public who had poor awareness of booster shots.

A statement issued by the National Emergency Operations Centre Coordinator Dr. Shahzad Baig said that “community resistance, driven by misconceptions and cultural resistance to the vaccine, are hurdles in polio eradication in Pakistan,” the Express Tribune reported in June.

Endemic to only two South Asian countries, the WHO and UNICEF have been actively trying to hold vaccination camps along with the government to achieve polio an eradication in Pakistan. Yet, as the vaccination camps increase, so have the attacks.

The opposition to vaccination also grew after the CIA organised a fake vaccination drive to track former Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad. Additionally, the conspiracy theories spread by some religious groups, claiming the vaccination drives to be part of a Western conspiracy to sterilise children and that they contain pig fat have further hampered the progress.

“Fake markings and refusals are two key reasons in the recent outbreak, with polio staff conspiring with parents to miss the vaccination,” an official stated during a polio eradication programme, where parents also accessed the pen used by health workers to mark vaccinated children, as reported by Dawn.


Also read: Can Pakistan’s Mohenjo-daro be rescued? Historians call for urgent action


What the government has done

In May 2022, the government approved $800 million for another five-year programme to eradicate polio, the Express Tribune reported.  The current project aims to increase social mobilisation programmes to increase vaccinations.   While the primary objective is to “circulate vaccine-derived poliovirus Type 2 transmission as a path to global polio eradication”, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative classified Pakistan as the only country with constant barriers to the prevention and eradication of the virus through vaccination.

Classified by the International Health Regulations (IHR) as a state infected with the virus and a  potential risk of international spread, Pakistan is yet to provide vaccination to all its citizens, especially those in the border areas. The country recently held three nationwide polio vaccination camps in March, April and May this year.

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