Another tragic attack recently left a policeman accompanying health workers dead in Pishin, Balochistan. It was the 22nd health worker or police guard killed while delivering vaccines this year. Yet, it barely made headlines.
Are we becoming immune to these deaths? Do we fail to recognise that each and every one of these killings is an attack on the children of Pakistan, whose very lives these health workers are so bravely working to protect?
The government of Pakistan together with the implementing partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative including Unicef, WHO and Rotary have repeatedly called for the impartiality of immunisation campaigns and have condemned the use of any public health initiative for any purpose other than community and child health. All parties in all circumstances should respect the noble mission of health workers.
In the midst of this tragedy, the resolve of Pakistan’s front-line health workers to deliver life-saving vaccines to children is extraordinary. Over 50,000 heroic vaccinators continue to carry out this mission almost every month in the areas most at risk to polio.
The majority of Pakistani parents give their full support to the health workers who immunise their children. Despite intimidation, less than half of one per cent (almost about 0.5 per cent) of parents refuse the vaccine out of the 34 million children under five years of age who were visited during each national polio campaign. This is a tribute to Pakistani parents determined to protect their children from lifelong disability.
There is a lot to be hopeful about. Most of Pakistan has not recorded a single case of polio this year. In areas where most children are repeatedly vaccinated by health workers, the virus has been halted in its tracks.
There have only been 22 polio cases in Pakistan this year, compared with 29 at this time in 2012. The number of individual genetic strains of the wild poliovirus have dropped from more than 12 last year to just two this year. However, of the polio cases this year, 82 per cent are from Fata and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — both areas where security and access for health workers has been severely compromised. Without access and security, Pakistan will have to brace itself for an increased number of children needlessly crippled for life in the second half of the year. This is when the virus is most virulent and can rapidly spread among the thousands of unprotected children, some who have not been vaccinated in over one year. Who will protect the people who protect your children?
Our ability to protect Pakistani children depends fundamentally on the strength of Pakistanis to stand up against these attacks. A partnership at all levels — national and provincial governments, healthcare workers, teachers, religious scholars, civil society, university students, business leaders, UN agencies, the media, mothers, and fathers — will reach far beyond polio.
The community of health workers and social mobilisers, who are threatened each day, actively promote broader health benefits for all children. If we cannot reach these children with two simple drops of vaccine, we will be not be able to protect them from the nine vaccine-preventable diseases, from diarrheal episodes, or poor nutrition and sanitation. Children in 185 out of 188 countries — including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia — no longer live with the risk of being paralysed by polio. Pakistan’s children deserve to join this list.
After Ramazan, our thoughts, our prayers, but most importantly, our actions, must be with the brave front-line health workers. No more innocent lives should be lost of those trying to protect our children. And no more innocent children should be left paralysed because they were not reached.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2013.