A senior official associated with Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts has refuted reports that the latest nationwide immunisation drive was cancelled owing to heightened security threats.
In a tweet, Babar bin Atta, the prime minister’s adviser on polio eradication, said the campaign which commenced on April 22 was a five-day affair which had concluded as per schedule.
” … let me clearly state that National Polio Campaign was a 5 day affair. It started on Monday & Ended Yesterday. The LQAS (survey to check 95% optimum levels) has been stopped as we know the quality is not 95%. Why waste Government/Donor resources?” he wrote on Twitter.
The prime minister’s adviser said that details of the campaign, including the number of children vaccinated and refusal cases, would be released later.
Another official working on anti-polio efforts also presented a similar view in a talk with Express Tribune. “The nationwide campaign was scheduled to run for five days, starting on Monday and with Friday as the last catch-up day. That is how it panned out so how can we say the immunisation drive was cancelled?”
He conceded that the April vaccination drive had been affected by the “pre-planned propaganda campaign in Peshawar” and the recent attacks on polio vaccinators.
In response to a question, he said these setbacks would not have any impact on future campaigns. “The schedule for the next vaccination campaign has not been decided yet. In any case, it would be after Ramazan and these issues will be resolved by then.”
A spokesperson for the federal health ministry also seconded the stance adopted by the PM’s adviser on polio eradication. “This vaccination campaign proceeded as per schedule. There was no cancellation as clarified by the prime minister’s adviser.”
THE OTHER SIDE
April was a violent month for polio campaign in the country, with at least three people killed this week, and thousands of parents refusing to allow their children to be inoculated amid a deluge of anti-vaccine content on social media.
The violence coincided with an outbreak of hysteria in cities across the northwest after rumours of children suffering from adverse reactions to a polio vaccine sparked panic.
An official report later confirmed that a “pre-planned conspiracy” was responsible for the panic.
The incident fed festering suspicions about the vaccine campaign, with authorities saying dozens of polio workers were beaten, stoned, and harassed and one health clinic burned to the ground in the episode’s wake.
The controversy over the “cancellation” of the immunisation campaign was also driven by an advisory purportedly sent out to Provincial Emergency Operation Centres on Friday.
“The nationwide campaign was launched in all districts/areas of the country from April 22 and today is the last catch up day in all districts except Tier 1 districts and SMT areas. After Peshawar incident, the uncertain and threatening situation for the frontline polio workers has emerged and we need to save the program from major damage,” reads the advisory issued by the National Emergency Operations Centre for Polio Eradication.
“It has therefore been unanimously decided by the national technical team and GPEI partners to call off the catchup activities of April NID campaign in all provinces and areas of the country with immediate effect. Hence, no further vaccination or catch-up activity will be conducted in any area for this campaign.”
“As already communicated, no post campaign evaluation will be conducted for this round. We will jointly come up with the a strategy/action plan for future SIAs.”
‘PROGRESS DESPITE RESISTANCE’
Polio is endemic in only three countries globally – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – although a relatively rare strain was also detected in Papua New Guinea last year.
Polio vaccination campaigns have faced stubborn resistance for years in Pakistan. Attacks by militants have also been frequent, with nearly 100 people killed in assaults targeting vaccine teams since 2012.
Despite the opposition, campaigners have reported progress with tens of millions of children vaccinated across the country along with a 96 percent drop in reported polio cases since 2014.
In recent months, social media has also been inundated with fake news reports and videos – garnering hundreds of thousands of views and shares in the last week alone – claiming numerous children have been killed by the polio vaccine.
Public health experts say the misinformation has inflamed already existing distrust of vaccine campaigns, resulting in a three-fold jump in refusals by parents to vaccinate their children in the last two years.
“Here people have little knowledge, so if they see a professor allegedly from the US or elsewhere who is against the vaccine, they are easily convinced,” Rana Safdar from National Institute of Health said a few days ago. “Now there is a pushback. We need to regain the momentum.”