Polio in Balochistan is sharply rising, with a 50% increase in cases since last year.
Quetta, Qila Abdullah and Pishin districts have been declared high-risk zones for the virus, where 28 children were found with the disease. Last year, 26 cases of polio were reported in the entire province.
In the past nine months, 40 cases of polio have been detected, which is said to be the highest in the world. However, the number of cases is now 39 because a three-year-old polio patient died last week after suffering from chest infection.
“Around 1.5 million children below the age of five are at risk of being infected by polio in Balochistan,” Unicef official Jawahir Habib said.
Spreading to new areas
The World Health Organisation has expressed concern over the virus being detected in Baloch-dominated districts like Khuzdar, Kohlu, Dera Bugti, Naushki and Kalat, because no cases had been reported in those areas over the last 10 years.
“The Baloch belt was a polio-free zone in the last decade. We have observed that the virus is spreading to the Baloch dominated districts from Qila Abdul, Pishin and Quetta,” said Tahira Kamal, from the WHO.
Obstacles in polio campaigns
Dr Hanif Khelji, chief coordinator of the Rotary Club’s polio eradication programme in Balochistan, said that teams constituted for anti-polio drives are not reaching remote areas in northern Balochistan.
Additionally, schoolchildren have been employed in the campaign making parents reluctant to get their child vaccinated. “How can a student of grade eight administer polio vaccines?” asked Dr Khelji.
There is common perception in remote areas in northern Balochistan, which has majority of Pashtuns, that anti-polio vaccines can make a person impotent. “During Friday’s sermons, prayer leaders call polio drives ‘anti-Islam campaign by the west to control the Muslim population’,” said Kamal from the WHO.
Officials from the World Health Organisation, Unicef and Rotary Club said security problem are also a hindrance in the drives.
Workers administering the drops were attacked and threatened in Pishin and Quetta. However, officials added that inaccessibility to certain areas and a lack of awareness is what primarily makes the campaigns ineffective.
“Health experts have now decided to engage parliamentarians, religious scholars and other stakeholders, particularly in high risk areas, to encourage more people to get their children vaccinated,” an official said.
President of Paramedics Staff Association Balochistan, Samad Raisani, said workers face threats from religious extremists. “There have been instances of women being beaten up and kidnapped in Pishin and Jhal Magsi,” he said.
Raisani claimed that corruption is another obstacle. “Officials are minting millions, but workers administering the drops get paid little for their services. This is why they do not perform their duties in remote areas,” he said.
Commenting over the lack of interest by authorities concerned, Dr Khelji said special units were set up on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by Rotary Club to administer polio vaccine to children crossing the border. “The unit was closed in a day in Pakistan because neither was their electricity nor drinking water. The unit is functioning smoothly in Afghanistan,” Khelji said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan blame each other for the spread of the virus. “As many as 91 cases were reported in Pakistan, 39 in Balochistan, while merely 30 cases were detected in Afghanistan. Therefore, blaming Afghanistan is not quite reasonable since they have managed to control the virus,” said Kamal from the WHO.
Lady health workers
“There are 7,200 Lady Health Workers in Balochistan, but merely 23% of them take part in the initiative. Balochistan is a conservative society and families do not allow male volunteers to enter their house,” Dr Khelji said, suggesting that engaging women health workers is more appropriate.
Recently, Governor Balochistan Nawab Zulfiqar Magsi had directed officials from the health department to take action against officials found negligent and also to engage more women in campaigns.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 1st, 2011.