ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has scheduled two nationwide immunization campaigns for February and April this year amid its anti-polio efforts, said health officials, which after a long gap started again in December and succeeded to bring down the number of children who missed vaccination from 1.7 million to 228,000.
“This is a beginning of a successful fightback,” Rana Muhammad Safdar, a coordinator at the National Emergency Operation Center for Polio in Islamabad, told Arab News earlier this week.
The government has also identified over 350,000 children who have not been given “even a single dose” of polio vaccine. “A comprehensive strategy is devised to boost routine immunization and nutrition of children in 40 super high-risk areas of the country,” he said.
In each nationwide campaign, around 40 million children are vaccinated with the help of 265,000 workers. “A strategic vaccination is also being carried out between the national campaigns in areas where cases have been reported in the last six months to quickly enhance the immunity of the children,” he said.
Pakistan is one of the three countries where the disease has yet to be eradicated. The other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria.
While 54 cases were recorded in 2015, consistent vaccination campaigns helped decrease the prevalence of polio in the past few years. In 2016, health officials recorded 20 cases, while in 2017 only eight, and 12 in 2018.
Last year, however, Pakistan witnessed a rapid surge in infections, with 136 cases. Ten children lost their lives to the illness.
“It is simple, we failed to vaccinate our children, there is no other explanation for it,” Safdar said.
“In 2018, which was a year of political transition, government teams got changed in a short span of time. The frequent transfers of bureaucrats at the district level during the elections affected the whole polio campaign,” he said.
As anti-immunization campaigns on social media also hampered the nationwide vaccination efforts, Pakistani authorities have called on Facebook to remove the harmful content that was putting the lives of health workers at risk.
A Facebook delegation visited Islamabad this week and expressed the company’s commitment to supporting the immunization campaign, the Ministry of Health said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We stand behind the national and global efforts to create a polio-free world and will continue to support these efforts,” Rafael Frankel, Facebook regional director, was quoted as saying in the statement.
The campaigns have faced stubborn resistance for years in Pakistan, with many refusing to have their children vaccinated because of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Since 2012, militants have killed at least 80 health workers and security personnel guarding them.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has blamed the anti-immunization propaganda for the rapid increase in the number of polio cases across the country.
“In 2019, our response was hampered by misconceptions about the vaccine and misperceptions about the vaccination efforts,” Jamal Ahmed, WHO team leader for polio in Pakistan, told Arab News. He added, however, that this is a global phenomenon, not inherent to Pakistan.
Since 1994, the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program has been running to put an end to the crippling poliovirus. It has been successful in eradicating two of the three virus types.
Pakistan remains under a polio-linked travel restriction imposed by the WHO. Since 2014, every Pakistani traveling abroad has to carry a polio vaccination certificate.
“The world today is highly interconnected … The (polio) risk is partly mitigated by ensuring travelers are vaccinated,” the WHO’s Ahmed said.
The WHO has termed Pakistan’s poliovirus surveillance system as “one of the best in the world.”
“This is a year of transformation,” Safdar said, expressing hope that Pakistan will be able to beat polio in 2021.