By Robin Gomes
Pakistan’s first national vaccination campaign against polio, this year, kicked off on Monday, after the surge in new cases recorded last year.
According to authorities, 39.6 million children under the age of five years are scheduled to administer the vaccine against the disease across the country, except in Karachi that started a week ahead.
In the 3-day campaign, more than 265 thousand frontline health workers are going door to door to find out minors who have not been vaccinated.
How dangerous is polio?
Poliomyelitis or polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a human enterovirus called poliovirus which invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The virus is transmitted by person-to-person spread mainly through the faecal-oral route or, less frequently, by a common vehicle such as contaminated water or food and multiplies in the intestine.
One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.
There is no cure for polio, it can only be prevented. Polio vaccine, given multiple times, can protect a child for life.
According to Dr. Zafar Mirza, the Special Assistant to the Pakistani Prime Minister on Health, “the nation is all set to undertake aggressive measures to push the virus back during 2020, setting the stage to root out polio from the country once for all”. “We are committed to reach every last child with the essential polio vaccine and I request all segments of society to join hands,” he said.
Dr Rana Muhammad Safdar, the coordinator of the National Center for Emergency Operations, argues that the current geographical spread and intensity of transmission of the virus is a real risk for all Pakistani children. "Reaching every child - he adds - during the national door-to-door campaign will provide the necessary immune boost to our children and guarantee them to be protected from paralysis for life".
Still endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria
Polio remains endemic in three countries Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Until poliovirus transmission is interrupted in these countries, all countries remain at risk of importing polio, especially vulnerable countries with weak public health and immunization services and travel or trade links to endemic countries.
Pakistan has made steady progress since 1994 bringing the number of polio cases significantly down from the highs of almost 20,000 a year. A total of 144 wild poliovirus (WPV) cases were reported in the country during 2019 while another 17 have so far been reported in 2020 including ten from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, five from Sindh and two from Balochistan provinces.
The polio campaign in Pakistan has met with resistance from many Pakistanis who believe that vaccination is anti-Islamic, causes infertility, is a Western campaign to kill Muslims or is a ploy to spy.
Armed assailants belonging to militant groups have frequently targeted polio vaccinators and their security in several parts of Pakistan. Poliovirus can be considered eradicated if it hasn’t been detected for three years.