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Superstitions, fake vaccine certificates have intensified Pakistan’s fight with Polio

Polio is back to haunt the people of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province after a 15-month hiatus.

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New Delhi:  Polio is back to haunt Pakistan after a 15-month hiatus. Despite relentless eradication efforts, an eighth case of the neurodegenerative disease was reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s North Waziristan district, which borders Afghanistan—also the only other country battling this crippling virus.

Citing the Pakistan government, global humanitarian portal ReliefWeb reported the first of these cases on 22 April, which was also the third case of Wild Polio to be reported anywhere in the world this year.

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Khyber Pakhtunkhwa particularly exposed

As such, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province appears particularly vulnerable to Wild Polio, with a ‘positive environmental sample’ detected on 5 April in Bannu district. “Southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had been identified by the Polio programme as the area most at risk after Wild Polio virus was detected in environmental samples in the last quarter of 2021…In 2020, the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa reported 22 cases,” states ReliefWeb.

According to health officials cited by The Guardian, this latest outbreak is down not only to widespread vaccine hesitancy in the region but also due to parents “falsely marking themselves and their children as vaccinated.”

This hesitancy seemingly stems from a lack of informed education and “suspicions that the immunization is a Western-led conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children,” Voice of America reported on 2 June.

Such suspicions are not just dangerous for the long-term health of unvaccinated children but also for the safety of health workers, who conduct annual door-to-door inoculation campaigns. Over a hundred health workers in Pakistan have been casualties of terrorism since 2012, The Guardian claims.

One of the most recent murders took place during one such inoculation campaign outside KPK’s capital, Peshawar, in March this year, ABC News reported.

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UN stands in solidarity with Pakistan

After the new outbreak began, regional directors of United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) as well as high ranking officials of the Polio Oversight Board and the global Polio programme travelled to Pakistan to review and express their support for the country’s fight against the virus.

Crucially, the delegation praised Pakistan’s Polio Programme, labelled the outbreak as “unsurprising” and “not a setback” for Pakistan’s fight against Polio eradication, comparing its perils to those of Nigeria, UNICEF revealed in a statement.

“Pakistan has come a long way in its efforts to end Polio. This was made possible thanks to the commitment of its government, and to the heroic efforts of hundreds of thousands of Polio workers, more than half of whom are women,” UNICEF cited its regional director for South Asia, George Laryea-Adjei as saying.

In 2024, Pakistan will reach the 30-year mark since its Polio programme officially began, and although academics note the major strides made over the decades, the ongoing outbreak in KPK and targeting of health workers represent continued hurdles for Pakistan, stalling its goal to completely eradicate this debilitating, child-affecting virus.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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