Almost a month back, reports had started pouring in of polio cases from China. This was a rude surprise, as there had not been any reported polio cases there since 1999. Scientific investigations revealed that the type of strain implicated in the Chinese outbreak — Wild Polio Virus Type 1 — was genetically linked to the strain circulating in neighbouring Pakistan. In effect, polio had been exported from Pakistan to China. However, within this short time span of a month, there has been a remarkable and swift response to limit the spread of polio in China — imparting important lessons for Pakistan on how to curb its own polio imbroglio.
Polio is not newsworthy in Pakistan. Every other week, if not a couple of days, we hear of news reports about new polio cases — these are safely tucked on the margins and corners of all the newspapers. However, the problem continues to spiral out of control with every new year.
The way the Chinese handled the crisis ought to give our polio policymakers something to digest and possibly implement in our local context. Indeed, shock waves started resonating in the power corridors in China when news of the polio cases came out. China had gotten rid of the polio problem quite some time back, and already being touted as the next superpower, the polio menace was a rude slap on the face. Therefore, it came as no surprise that the authorities came out very strongly, devising a polio framework that covered all parameters in extreme meticulousness. In large vaccination drives that began early September, health workers successfully vaccinated 4.5 million people with three doses of the polio vaccine. In addition, health care centres had been sensitised to enhance disease surveillance so that no new cases, if any, went unchecked. This remarkable progress demonstrated that a swift and severe response to polio is not only possible but mandatory to curb spread of the disease.
All this should serve as an eye-opener for the experts running the polio programme in Pakistan. So far this year, there have been 444 new cases of polio globally, and the biggest chunk, a quarter of the reported, root from Pakistan. It is therefore no surprise that Oliver Rosenbauer, WHO spokesman for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in Geneva, recently reiterated, “Pakistan — it’s our biggest problem in 2011”.
From the looks of it, there seems to be no lack of money being poured to gear up the polio initiative in Pakistan — only a couple of months back the Gates Foundation donated close to a hundred million dollars. However, the way that the allocated money is used has often been a source of debate and controversy. A myriad of factors are responsible for the worsening polio quandary in Pakistan, one of the foremost being the lack of a strong political will to tackle this crisis. Simple logic reminds us that unless we realise the gravity of the situation, we cannot tackle it. On and off small-scale immunisation efforts will not produce long lasting results. And donor fatigue is already building up in the international community, where some forces reckon that not much progress can be made in the fight against polio in Pakistan. So the time is ripe now for our policymakers to take cue from the Chinese and look upon polio as Pakistan’s problem and tackle it on an emergency plan.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 24th, 2011.