An article in this newspaper on June 25 made the unfounded claim that expired oral polio vaccines (OPVs) in South Waziristan were making children sick. Like so much spin surrounding the polio campaign, this needs to be corrected: expired OPVs are not harmful to children in any way. The poor children were sick but it was not due to the polio vaccine, expired or otherwise.
The fact is that the OPV is one of the safest vaccines available. It has helped in the eradication of polio worldwide except in three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. The vaccine contains an attenuated polio virus which, when ingested, multiplies in the intestine and induces production of antibodies against the polio virus. So, if in the future the polio virus attacks, these antibodies provide protection.
When a vaccine expires, either because of being past its expiration date or because it has not been kept in an ideal temperature, it loses its efficacy and does not protect against the infection. However, the expired vaccine has no side effects.
The truth is that indicators from the last six months show progress: more children are being vaccinated, fewer children have polio and even the highest risk areas, including Fata, are showing improvement. Unfortunately, there are still various distortions regarding polio-related issues, which need clarification.
The first involves Dr Shakil Afridi, who was not part of any polio vaccination team. Dr Afridi was part of a hepatitis-B vaccination campaign. The misperception of this fact has painted all vaccination efforts in Pakistan with the same brush.
Second, multiple doses of the vaccine are not harmful to children. Even in the most developed countries, children need to receive multiple doses of the OPV. In countries like Pakistan — with widespread malnutrition and substandard water and sanitation facilities — many more drops are necessary. If a child is sick due to these reasons, which can cause vomiting of the OPV, higher dosages might be necessary.
Additionally, polio vaccines do not cause sterility or impotence. There is no evidence that polio vaccines have any detrimental effects on children or adults. The OPV is one of the safest vaccines in the world.
There is good news in Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts. At this time, Pakistan is recording half as many cases as in 2011. There is no better proof that more children are being reached and vaccinated. Even in North Waziristan, with the close cooperation of local militant groups, over 143,000 of 161,000 children under five years of age were vaccinated in June by unseen and unsung heroes, often risking their lives to reach every child. There is a greater need to celebrate these kinds of achievements.
Pakistan can beat polio. Somehow, the dominant tone in the media and beyond is that Pakistan is a lost cause, seen as more complex than India, China, Somalia or any other country, which has beaten polio in the past decades. Of course, it can be done and it’s simple: reach every child, every time.
Come on Pakistan, we’re nearly there. Enough with the conspiracy theories, enough with the bargaining of child health, enough with the rumours. Let’s just get on with it.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 29th, 2012.