Polio ended the year 2014 grimly victorious in Pakistan. Across the country there were more than 290 cases diagnosed, with at least 22 of those found in Balochistan. The first day of the new year saw a 26-month-old boy diagnosed with polio in Chaghi district of the province and there is no indication that the current outbreak has either peaked or been brought under control. Chaghi district shares a border with Afghanistan, which has its own problems in addressing polio eradication — it also shares a border with Iran, which is unlikely to be pleased to find polio on its doorstep having been polio-free for many years.
Polio cases have been emerging in the Quetta zone of Balochistan allegedly because of the poor administration of the anti-polio campaign. The campaign in Quetta is anyway currently suspended as a result of security threats. Threats have been made against polio vaccinators and campaign administrators across the country. There are regular attacks on vaccinators and a steady stream of fatalities from among their ranks. That they do the job at all despite the very obvious risk is either a tribute to their courage, or a sign of their own desperation to earn a small wage — probably a combination of both. The vast majority of vaccinators are women, a fact rarely acknowledged. The drive to rid Pakistan of polio took a huge backwards step in 2014. In large part, this was due to deteriorations in the security environment, but it was also in large part down to determined resistance against vaccination in certain communities, where conspiracy theories about polio vaccination abound. The Pakistan Taliban are on record having said that they will target vaccinators everywhere — and they have done so in many parts of the country. They have roots within certain highly conservative communities, which is of significance in the context of battling polio. The provincial and federal governments need to focus on how to neutralise, to turn around, the crucial perceptions that are allowing polio to have a stranglehold on Pakistan. And they need to be doing that as of today, not tomorrow or the next month.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 3rd, 2015.