With two new cases confirmed on September 17, the total number of polio cases in Pakistan has risen sharply this year.
With 64 confirmed cases so far this year, the number marks a spike in polio cases in the country of 208 million people still struggling to eradicate the crippling disease.
According to the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), an office within the Pakistani government’s polio eradication program, a 2-year-old girl from the district of Lakki Marwat in northwestern Khyber Pakhunkhwa Province was identified as one of the latest victims. The details of another confirmed polio case in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s mountainous northern Torghar district were not available. Most are the polio cases are concentrated in Khyber Pakhunkhwa, which has had 48 in total.
The new cases were reported after Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a leading opposition political party, recently criticized the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf’s (PTI) government for turning the polio eradication program into a “disaster.” The PML-N is now demanding an inquiry into why the country’s polio eradication program is allegedly failing.
“What we created was a national polio eradication program, but today it has turned into the PTI’s polio eradication program,” Saira Afzal Tarar, a former health minister and PML-N leader, told journalists on September 13. “This program is so chaotic that the federal government has no coordination with the provincial governments.”
But Babar Atta, Prime Minister Imran Khan's special adviser on polio eradication, accused the opposition of stooping “to a new low by using 62 paralyzed children for political score settling.”
Polio was considered on the decline after authorities confirmed 54 cases in 2015. There were 20, eight, and 12 cases in the following three years, but the number has already increased significantly in the first nine months of 2019.
Recent feedback by the World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on polio eradication, however, reportedly noted that Islamabad’s efforts against the crippling disease are failing, which might risk the global efforts against polio.
TAG noted that the program was failing to work under a coherent vision and unified strategy and lacked successful management at various administrative levels, and that it has failed to build trust with communities and focus on “effective and high-quality program activities.”
On September 17, the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) allocated a helpline to the EOC so that parents and activists could inform authorities about children who might have missed the polio vaccination drives. The helpline also offers information to answer questions and negate propaganda against the vaccination.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is funding the helpline, which will help some 262,000 workers in the country to lodge complaints about obstacles to their drive. Since 2001, militants have killed scores of polio workers and the police guarding them. Some hard-line Islamists claim that the vaccines aim to sterilize Muslim children.
The global polio eradication drive, which began in 1988, is now close to eradicating the crippling disease from the world. It exists now only in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nigeria has already marked three years with no new cases and can soon be certified polio-free.