Pakistan’s polio campaign is in panic following an unexpected spike in cases last week. Eight cases of polio were reported in children in the North Waziristan district, close to the Afghan border, in the previous month. It’s the first time there have been any cases in about a year.
The government is looking into whether this latest outbreak is the result of parents classifying themselves and their children as vaccinated when they are not.
Due to high vaccine refusal rates, North Waziristan, a former Taliban stronghold in northwestern Pakistan, is suspected of being the source of the new infections.
“Fake marks and refusals are two key factors in the recent outbreak,” a polio eradication programme official in Pakistan said, alluding to how health workers gave special pens to parents who were sceptical about immunizations to mark their children’s fingers.
“The examples indicate exactly where the barriers are,” said national programme coordinator Dr. Shahzad Baig. “We’re doing everything we can to contain the virus and fight it till the end.”
The last case of polio-related paralysis in a child was reported in January of last year, prior to this outbreak.
“After the initial two cases in April, the polio programme acted quickly to ringfence this area and prevent the virus from spreading further,” said federal health minister Abdul Qadir Patel.
“Pakistan has made tremendous progress in the fight against polio in recent years, and we are doing all possible to keep the programme on track.”
The minister emphasised the need of parents immunising their children at the appropriate times, as each dosage of the polio vaccine conferred further immunity.
National immunisation programmes have been delivered door-to-door for the past 25 years. Security agents accompany the teams, which are mostly made up of female health personnel.
In January, March, and May of this year, three such exercises were conducted. During the March campaign, terrorists shot and killed a female polio worker in northern Pakistan. In January, attackers shot and murdered a police officer who was providing security to a polio team in the northwest.
Since 2012, armed groups in Pakistan have killed over 100 health care workers and their security guards.
According to the World Health Organization, Pakistan is one of two countries where the wild polio disease is still common, along with Afghanistan.
A health worker gives the vaccine in Islamabad earlier this year as part of Pakistan’s current polio eradication effort.
Polio has reappeared in Pakistan, paralysing a baby boy.
In Pakistan, anti-vaccination attitude is widespread. According to clergy and others, vaccines are a western plan to sterilise Muslim children, and a husband was allowed to divorce his wife for vaccinating his children against polio.
False rumours regarding polio vaccines causing fainting and vomiting spread across northern Pakistan in April 2019, resulting in the admission of about 25,000 children to hospitals.