Representatives of the Pakistan Pediatric Association (PPA) held a press conference on Tuesday to clarify the allegations made against the polio vaccines being administered in the country.
Almost a week back, Dunya TV anchor Mubashir Lucman conducted a series of programmes on ‘polio’, in which it was alleged that the vaccine being administered in the country are expired or that heat was affecting the drops. Guests on the show went on to say that such allegedly faulty drops could potentially cause polio itself, or even death in some cases.
The show has created frustration among those who are working towards the eradication of the virus. “These allegations are so absurd that we did not even know how to react and just thought of them as propaganda,” said Prof. A Ghaffar Billo at the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday.
He told journalists that since the allegations were made through the electronic media, which can be understood even by the unlettered population, it is likely that people will develop a fear of the drops and refuse vaccinations for their children.
He explained that if the dose is damaged due to heat exposure, it can be easily detected by the Vaccine Vial Monitor (VVM), which comes with the vial carrying the drops. The VVM detects a change in colour of the dose to confirm if it is expired.
Billo denied that there are any lethal effects of damaged or expired drops, saying that even if such drops are given to children, no health risks are involved. He showed two vials to the audience, an expired one and an effective one. “I can volunteer to drink 20 expired vials to prove that it does not lead to deaths or other harmful effects.” He said the only drawback is that the drops do not serve the purpose of preventing polio.
“The fact that no deaths have been reported in the past 18 years, since the start of the polio campaign, is proof enough that these claims are false,” said Billo.
He also spoke about the propaganda by religious leaders against the eradication campaign. They claim that polio drops lead to infertility and that illness is ordained by Allah, thus Muslims should not play any role in its eradication. Citing examples of India, Egypt and Nigeria, Billo said that these countries faced similar problems but the allegations were countered by other religious leaders. We also have fatwas by about 10 religious leaders against these misconceptions, said Billo.
The PPA president, Dr Iqbal Memon, added that the failure to eradicate these diseases has damaged the country’s reputation. “Even for Hajj, they administer special polio drops to Pakistanis and I fear that we might lose the permission to travel abroad until polio is eradicated.” He said that sanitation is also emphasised with the vaccine because the virus is transferred to the environment through fecal release. Experts recommend continuing the eradication campaign for three more years at least.
The polio eradication programme has been working since the mid-1970s. The only countries that still have polio in the world are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
India, which has the same social and demographic structure, celebrated its first year of zero polio this January. A country is declared polio free if it has no case for three consecutive years. A majority of the cases, in which the child has received no dosage or less than the required three, have been reported in Fata and Balochistan due to inaccessibility. In Punjab, there were no polio cases for three years due to effective vaccination. The number of polio cases fell from 1,155 in 1997 to just 28 in 2005. But the virus made a comeback in 2011 when 198 cases were reported in Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 22nd, 2012.