As the poliovirus continues to rear its head in Hyderabad's monthly environmental sample reports, the apparent winding up of field operations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the federal government have only added to the anxieties of the district administration, which fears the failure of the upcoming anti-polio campaign.
According to sources in the district administration and the district health office, the WHO plans to reduce its staff in Hyderabad by around 70 per cent.
The existing 22 union council polio officers (UCPOs), fielded in high-risk UCs, are to be replaced by just seven UCPOs from next month.
Likewise, against the three polio eradication officers (PEOs) posted at the taluka level, only one will be left performing duties from next month. The district will also lose its area coordinator.
"[A] reduction in the posts of UCPOs and PEOs is anticipated from the Emergency Operation Centre [EOC], which will only enlarge the challenge of the poliovirus because the staff is not only acting as whistleblowers but also as frontline fighters in every campaign," read a letter written by Hyderabad deputy commissioner Fuad Ghaffar Soomro to the EOC Sindh coordinator.
Acknowledging the staff's support, he dubbed them an invaluable asset in the fight against the crippling virus, pointing out that the district health department's performance was far from satisfactory as far as the polio drive was concerned.
He reiterated that the polio immunisation campaigns would be weakened without the said staff and requested the authorities to retain the existing number of workers in Hyderabad.
On August 24, the UCPOs in Hyderabad had received letters, which conveyed that their employment contract for polio third party personnel would not be extended beyond September 30. However, in a subsequent letter dated September 25, the staffers were given a month's extension, until October 31.
"We fear that 18 staff members from the existing 26 will become redundant after October 31," said a UCPO, requesting anonymity, while talking to The Express Tribune. He contended that the district health office staff was not competent enough to replace them, in terms of both fieldwork and data compilation.
In addition to the WHO, the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) is also withdrawing its National Stop Transmission of Polio (NSTOP) programme officer posted at the Hyderabad division level. His duties are being handed over to the NSTOP officer currently heading the district EOC.
"A dedicated NSTOP officer at the division level looked after multifarious issues related to data compilation of the nine districts [in Hyderabad division]," wrote the DC in a separate letter to EOC Sindh. "The district NSTOP officer also dealt with different operational issues at the UC level, besides data compilation."
The NSTOP officers also assisted the DCs in the operation of district and UC polio eradication committees, planning outreach to high-risk mobile populations, team building, effective communication, surveillance and other range of tasks.
Soomro said that burdening the district-based officer with the responsibility of all nine districts would undoubtedly compromise performance.
On October 13, EOC Sindh coordinator Fayyaz Hussain Abbasi wrote to the NEOC national coordinator, contending that the reduction of staff would affect anti-polio drives in Hyderabad division.
He requested a no-objection certificate to allow NSTOP officials at the divisional and district levels in Hyderabad to continue their work.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2020.