Pakistan scoring great gains against polio, despite challenges
(From right) Asif Ali Zardari, president of Pakistan, talks with Robert S. Scott, chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee, and Aziz Memon, chair of the Pakistan PolioPlus Committee, about the country’s emergency action plan against polio during a meeting of senior government officials in Islamabad in March. Rotarians also helped secure the signatures of 150 members of Pakistan’s parliament in support of polio eradication in June. Photo courtesy of Pakistan PolioPlus Committee
Pakistan is making progress against polio in the face of challenging, sometimes tragic circumstances, including the recent killing of a local community polio immunization worker and wounding of two others -- a staff member of the World Health Organization and an international consultant -- in Karachi, Sindh. In addition, leaders in a small region of the northern part of the country have banned polio vaccinations.
WHO issued a statement expressing condolences to the family of the worker who died, adding, “The partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative remain committed to supporting the government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan in their efforts to eradicate this devastating disease.”
Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are the only remaining polio-endemic countries in the world. The incidence of polio in Pakistan has dropped by more than 60 percent this year, with 23 cases reported as of 12 July, compared with 59 cases during the same period last year.
“Pakistan this year has perhaps the best chance ever to achieve success, because tremendous new efforts are being undertaken, led by the government, in implementing a national polio emergency action plan that mobilized all government and civil society resources,” says Robert S. Scott, chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. “There is strong evidence that implementation of the emergency plan is showing results, particularly in key reservoir areas such as Balochistan and Sindh.”
In support of Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts, Rotary recently installed two mobile clinics at checkpoints between Karachi and other parts of Sindh. The clinics are staffed 24 hours a day and supervised by WHO. Rotary also provided 45,000 vaccine carriers to the government in April.
“Rotary’s district governors and Rotarians at the club level are in the forefront of Pakistan’s drive to become polio free,” says Scott. “They are organizing health camps to vaccinate children, meeting with local politicians to urge their support, and sponsoring walks and putting up posters to promote the country’s emergency action plan against polio. I salute them for their commitment and tireless efforts, which are making a real difference.”
Rotary is also working to organize a committee of ulema, or Muslim religious scholars, to help correct misconceptions about the polio vaccine. Rotary successfully used this approach to overcome resistance to the vaccine in Muslim communities in India, which WHO removed from the list of polio-endemic countries in February.
In June, health officials from both Pakistan and Afghanistan visited India to learn firsthand about its proven strategies. Past RI President Rajendra K. Saboo, Rotary Foundation Trustee Ashok Mahajan, and India PolioPlus Committee Chair Deepak Kapur briefed the Pakistani delegation on India’s eradication efforts. The Rotary representatives focused on the role of infrastructure, coordination of immunization campaigns, and lessons that could be applied in Pakistan, whose terrain, climate, and socioeconomic conditions are similar to India’s.
Pakistan’s national PolioPlus committee and Coca-Cola Beverages Pakistan have joined forces to build awareness of polio. The company provided 14 billboards promoting National Immunization Days in July, signs to be placed in shops in districts where the wild poliovirus has been reported, and vans to transport polio vaccine and water to toll booths.
“On behalf of 1.2 million Rotary members worldwide, including more than 5,100 in Pakistan, I would like to extend my thanks to Coca-Cola Pakistan for its generous support and dedication to ensuring that all children are reached during our national polio immunization campaigns,” says Pakistan PolioPlus Committee Chair Aziz Memon. “Working together, we are one step closer to a polio-free Pakistan, and a polio-free world.”
International cricketing superstar Shahid Afridi, a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, has also joined Pakistan’s anti-polio effort. A participant in Rotary’s “This Close” campaign, Afridi is from the Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and a Pashtun. In 2011, Pashtuns accounted for more than 75 percent of Pakistan’s polio cases, but the group only makes up 15 percent of the population.
“We have seen the support that celebrities of this stature can bring to national awareness efforts in other countries, and we have no doubt that Mr. Afridi will boost interest in the campaign and in ensuring that every child in Pakistan is vaccinated,” says Memon.