As polio cases continue to rise in Pakistan, concern is growing among health experts that the battle against the virus may have run into serious trouble.
Pakistan reported only 28 cases of polio in 2005, but the figure climbed to 89 in 2009. So far this year 97 cases have been reported, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by national governments and spearheaded by the World Health Organization (WHO) and other agencies.
Insecurity has contributed to the spread of the virus. Margaret Chan, the director-general of WHO, said on 30 October that about half of the 97 polio cases reported in 2010 were from Pakistan’s northern tribal areas, where clashes between militants and the security forces “restrict access to health care for many children”.
Saadullah Hasan, a mother from Swat, where fighting in 2009 displaced around 800,000, told IRIN: “There are still people here who oppose vaccination, because they say `western medicine’ is aimed at harming Muslims. But I will do all I can to protect my children - since I have seen how terrible a sickness polio can be.”
According to Gul Afridi, a WHO media and advocacy officer in Islamabad, “only 50 percent of the children are vaccinated in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas due to accessibility and managerial issues.” He said repeating vaccinations “has become a routine in the area and vaccination needs to be supervised better”.
Floods, which ravaged large parts of the country in August, have worsened an already difficult situation. Lizzy Berryman, an emergency response coordinator for the UK-based health charity Merlin, explained: “Since polio is oral-faecal in terms of transmission, the floods haven’t helped. They have led to population movements and people living in very crowded, unhygienic conditions in camps, and also when they go home - which can have an impact on the spread of any virus.”
According to Merlin, 588 health facilities countrywide have been damaged or destroyed by floods, further undermining a weak basic primary healthcare structure and poor sanitation system.
The government and humanitarian partners are committed to a vaccination campaign, but along with India, Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is one of only four countries in the world where polio remains endemic.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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