With consistent threats to vaccinators, refusal cases and controversies scarring the anti-polio drive in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is putting all its efforts in combating the challenges head-on with a 90-day-long vaccination drive.
Tackling the polio reservoir
After the World Health Organization (WHO) termed Peshawar ‘the international reservoir of polio,’ party members, health and communication experts have put their heads together and agreed in principle to launch the ‘biggest ever vaccination campaign’ in the provincial capital, officials privy to the meetings informed. The initiative is being led by PTI General Secretary Jehangir Tareen.
A number of health professionals, who attended a meeting on Friday, said their main aim is to rebuild trust between the public and government functionaries in order to reduce the controversies surrounding the campaign.
Information available from the meetings held over the past few days reveals it was deemed important to disassociate Dr Shakil Afridi – who was involved in a fake vaccination campaign to catch Osama bin Laden - from immunisation drives.
“Audiences need to be told that the teams involved in vaccination have no other agenda but to eradicate polio,” said an insider.
One of the suggestions under consideration is to employ international health experts such as the renowned Dr Mohammad al-Muhammadi, who has played a vital role in combating poliovirus in Sudan, Yemen and Somalia.
This year the number of reported polio cases has reached 77, nineteen more than 2012’s count.
Work in progress
According to another official, in the proposed 90-day immunisation drive, Peshawar will be divided into two major zones; high-risk and low-risk.
“In the first phase, high-risk zones will be divided and immunised in a cluster of 50 union councils, including areas like Larama, Badhaber, Shaheen Muslim Town and outskirts of the city, while in the low-risk zones 47 union councils will be included,” he said.
The official added a special taskforce is being constituted and will be notified in a week. It will act as the supervisory body between the health department and law enforcement agencies for the 90 days of the campaign. “This is a test run, if it succeeds then we will take this to other provinces as well,” he stated.
Meanwhile, while talking to The Express Tribune, Jehangir Tareen said his party was adamant about going ahead with the three-month vaccination plan to wipe out the disease. “The idea is to create an atmosphere which will give birth to a positive narrative in which the campaign is viewed,” said Tareen.
While a majority of this year’s cases were recorded from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Tareen claimed the trajectory of the poliovirus found in Syria and Egypt was traced back to Peshawar. “It will be an achievement to wipe out the virus from the district, and I’m sure we will succeed,” concluded Tareen.
While the impending decision of travel restrictions hangs in limbo, drastic efforts are required to neutralise the situation. Dr Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s assistant director-general for polio, emergencies and country collaboration told The Express Tribune from Oman last month that the global threat level of poliovirus was alarming in two countries: Nigeria and Pakistan. “The Nigerian virus has not travelled across the African continent, but the Pakistani virus has. Around 20 million children had to be vaccinated across the Eastern Mediterranean only because of Pakistan,” he said.
For Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the eradication of the virus does not only entail forming a health policy, but also carries the additional problem of security threats as around 15 health workers and 12 policemen have lost their life in targeted attacks by militants. Lately, PTI chief Imran Khan himself received threats for heading the vaccination drive.
However, all obstacles aside, this will be the first time the government will be taking a stand on an issue that has now become one of the most crucial problems plaguing Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2013.