On May 27, the Government of Pakistan issued a press release on the Pakistan Polio Erradication Programme’s website. In this report, it was confirmed that on May 26, two new cases of polio were confirmed by the Pakistan National Polio Laboratory at the National Institute of Health, Islamabad.
This marks the 5th and 6th cases of polio, reported in Pakistan this year. The two news cases are associated with two 18 months old children born in Mir Ali Tehsil, a girl and a boy, who both started experiencing the onset of paralysis as early as May 10 and May 11, respectively.
All six children who have contracted polio are from North Waziristan, where more cases are expected through the year due to a high rate of refusal to give the vaccine and the illegal but process of finger-marking without vaccinations. Considering that the only endemic countries at this point in the whole world are Pakistan and Afghanistan, it must be noted that there is great significance to exploring the causes of this reoccurrence of the disease in the context of polio campaigns and their efficacy in KPK and FATA.
The problems with Pakistan’s polio vaccination programme are complex and multifold. On May 28, The News reported that only recently around 8,000 children from 22 union councils, up to the age of five have been identified as never been vaccinated with the oral dose of the polio vaccine. Vaccinators, refusing parents and area incharges colluded to carry out the scam. This was immediately revealed after the two new cases in North Waziristan were registered. Reportedly, so far the National Emergency Operations Center (NEOC) has been relying on fake reports which claimed that 95% children were being vaccinated during each campaign. This leads to a gross underestimation of the number of children still unvaccinated.
Abduction of Dr Zeeshan
Journalists working on Waziristan also tweeted on May 26, reported the abduction of Dr Zeeshan, who was serving as a Polio N-STOP officer in Waziristan, who had been working effortlessly on the polio campaign there. He was kidnapped while still on duty. Dawn reported that Dr Zeeshan had come from Swat to specially oversee an anti-polio drive. After involving the law enforcement alongside jirga negotiations, Bannu commissioner Arshad Khan managed to recover Dr Zeeshan.
The political atmosphere in Waziristan actively creates the strongest hurdle in Pakistan’s journey towards a polio-free nation. 260,000 workers are deployed across the nation to vaccinate children under the age of five. Considering the perceptual concerns of people of Waziristan, it seems unlikely that the situation would improve radically unless some really necessary steps are taken to tackle the perception regarding the vaccine. Access to children in security-compromised areas, attacks on health care workers coupled with governance and operational failures continues to elongate this problem for Pakistan.
KPK govt failure
In 2014, Imran Khan government launched the Sehat ka Insaf campaign in KPK where the aim was to target all 9 vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio. This program was restricted to the provincial government and sought to undo completely any international involvement. Although it may seem like this is a good strategy to gain people’s trust to vaccinate, this utter lack of oversight has heavily contributed to the fake markings. This is apparent from the fact that the kids who developed polio were marked in the national record as having been vaccinated six or even seven times.