ISLAMABAD: The year has offered some encouraging signs in the combat against a polio epidemic but recent events have set efforts back particularly bloody month of July where one doctor and an associated community facilitator were shot dead in Karachi, and the Tribal regions along with populations in parts of the country stepped up refusal to accepting the immunisation vaccine, the World Health Organisation on Wednesday urged the federal government to ensure the safety of its polio vaccination teams, and to reverse the vaccination ban in Waziristan along with immediate secure access to Bara.
In a release, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region, Dr Ala Alwan while praising the decrease in polio cases in Pakistan, underled concerns about impending challenges in combating a resurgence of the virus in the country.
Attending the fourth meeting of the National Task Force on Polio Eradication in Pakistan, chaired by Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, WHO Regional Director Dr Ala Alwan said he was encouraged by the number of polio cases this year, 29, compared to last year’s 71.
However, Dr Alwan expressed serious concern about the unresolved challenges in the three major polio virus transmission zones in Pakistan – Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Quetta and adjoining districts, as well as parts of Karachi - which recently reported refusal levels higher than that in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Dr Alwan underscored that polio eradication cannot be achieved in Pakistan until the children in Khyber Agency, particularly Bara, who have been a part of the anti-polio campaign since 2009 are reached and vaccinated.
“Pakistan has turned the corner through its Emergency Action Plan,” noted Dr Alwan, “nevertheless, the deteriorating security situation in Karachi, impaired access in Bara and the recent ban in North and South Waziristan Agencies constitute a substantial risk to all the efforts.”
The Regional Director put special emphasis on reaching and vaccinating high-risk and highly mobile groups. The common denominator linking the main transmission zones are communities which are under-served by health services.
73 per cent of polio cases reported this year belong to FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Dr Alwan also raised alarm over the situation in North and South Waziristan agencies where a locally announced ban on the vaccination program has put more than 200,000 children at immediate risk as well as threatening an escalation in the risk of polio, adding that if not addressed, this ban will jeopardise efforts of the federal government and partner organisations.
Assuring the prime minister that WHO will continue its commitment to support polio eradication in the country, Dr Alwan drew attention to the recent incidents in Karachi wherein WHO staffers were injured while killing one Pakistani polio team member. He urged the government to take strong and decisive steps towards ensuring the safety and security of all polio workers, including those from international organisations.
On Quetta and surrounding districts, Dr Alwan noted that although remarkable efforts, made by the provincial administrative leadership, have resulted in recent gains, although ongoing managerial weaknesses, particularly in Pishin, endanger the gains.
Zardari briefed on polio
Later in the day, the Regional Director met President Asif Ali Zardari to discuss the progress and the challenges to the polio program in Pakistan.
Commending the financial contributions of the provincial Governments, the Regional Director urged the federal government to make additional substantial financial contributions, similar to those made by the governments of India and Nigeria.
Dr Alwan informed the President that he was very encouraged by the growing interest among member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to support polio eradication activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan through the Islamic Development Bank.
The Regional Director acknowledged the strong efforts of the federal and provincial governments as well as the dynamic support of the PM’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication and the chair of the Polio Oversight Committee.
He also acknowledged in particular the leadership of the Deputy Commissioners and the hard work of medical officers and vaccinators for improving the quality of polio eradication campaigns at the district and union council levels.
Dr Alwan deeply appreciated the clear statements of the commitment by the president and the prime minister of Pakistan, hoping that the federal and provincial governments will look into and effectively tackle the challenges in FATA and other polio virus transmission zones and will provide adequate security to all polio workers across the country.