Polio myths

Published: June 28, 2012
The writer is Chair of both the National Polio Certification Committee as well as the National Immunisation Technical Advisory Committee

The writer is Chair of both the National Polio Certification Committee as well as the National Immunisation Technical Advisory Committee

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.

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Reader Comments (7)

  • Ejaaz
    Jun 28, 2012 - 11:38PM

    Good for you Dr. Saab. Please speak more loudly so your voice can be heard. You just might save some children from a life long suffering from Polio. May Allah reward you for speaking up against evil.


  • 1984
    Jun 29, 2012 - 12:34AM

    I can understand your concern in debunking polio vaccine myths…But unfortunately,you’re publishing in a column in an English newspaper,where the target audience are the ones who already know about polio vaccines and are from the area where the parents never fail to vaccinate the children
    The places where vaccination is tabooed are the places having low literacy levels..
    In order to reach them,Govt and NGOs should set up campaign to highlight the benefits of polio vaccines.Like in India,Pakistan too can rope in celebrities to campaign for them.


  • Braishna
    Jun 29, 2012 - 1:14AM

    fake vaccination campaign of hepatitis has affected the polio campaign also – as people have lost trust – don’t be intellectually dishonest – secondly the writer or editor must carry out campaigns in conflict affected areas “simple” as it says.


  • s shah
    Jun 29, 2012 - 3:15AM

    Good for you, Doctor Sahib. Bravo. Pakistan needs many more clear sighted, brave people like you.


  • vasan
    Jun 29, 2012 - 6:24AM

    Fix the mullahs and incentivise the polio program showing benefits to the mullahs. Then it will work better.


  • Imran Con
    Jun 29, 2012 - 3:20PM

    Considering that link at the top to the article being referenced is now broken, I guess at least something small has been influenced by this one already.


  • vigilant
    Jun 30, 2012 - 2:14AM

    thanks for article but it must be published in local languages or these concerns needed to be discussed at friday prayer sermons


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