According to the UN Children’s Fund, Pakistan seems to be slipping deeper and deeper into the pit where polio lurks below, like an evil troll waiting to capture children and, in some cases, paralyse them for life. There is a growing belief within Unicef that Pakistan may end up as the lone country in the world where polio remains endemic. It seems to be losing its’ battle against the disease even as the other three countries where the virus is rampant — India, Afghanistan and Nigeria — continue to make some gains. The fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan repeatedly reinfect each other adds to the complications.
What is most worrying are the indications that the disease is spreading into new areas. One case was reported this year from Gilgit-Baltistan, an area considered polio-free for years. Twenty-two cases — the highest number in a single province — have been reported from Balochistan, some from districts such as Khuzdar and Kohlu which have previously been free of polio. The problem in Balochistan was mainly limited to Pashtun districts where refusals by parents to get their children vaccinated were not uncommon. Things have obviously grown worse and may be linked to the reluctance of vaccinating teams to travel far beyond Quetta given the law and order situation in Balochistan. We have 63 cases in total across the country compared to 36 at the same time last year. The total at the end of the year will almost certainly be alarming. Punjab, from where no cases have been reported, has done well but this on its own is not enough. Unicef has highlighted the risks Pakistan faces today. The battle against polio is one we can simply not afford to lose. The polio emergency declared at the start of the year has obviously had limited impact. We need to assess what has gone wrong and why we are in this sorry state. Administrative problems are clearly involved. There are also other issues. This needs to be sorted out urgently so that Pakistan can resume the success it was having in combating polio until about five years ago.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 11th, 2011.