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Fight against polio

The polio programme of Pakistan has largely stayed clear of administrative or financial irregularities since its inception two decades ago. All vaccination drives have been executed vigilantly, refusal cases pursued diligently and confirmed polio cases made public transparently. In fact, transparency has been the hallmark of the programme, winning the confidence of international donors. Recently, the Guardian published a damning report accusing the Pakistani officials of “covering up an outbreak of the most dangerous strain of polio and planning a covert vaccination programme to contain the disease”. The report, which the news website unusually referred to a source, says the P2 strain infected a dozen children, which the officials failed to make public. The resurgence of the P2 strain in the country, which had earlier been eliminated from Pakistan in 2014, has alarmed the international donors. The prime minister’s focal representative on polio eradication, Babar Bin Atta, has been accused of hiding the news from the government as well as donors. Last month the focal person, who otherwise was vigorously running the anti-polio campaigns, resigned from the office citing family reasons. According to the report, the P2 strain struck Diamer district, with one case in Islamabad. Polio has three strands – P1, P2, and P3 – and of them, the P2 strain is regarded as the most contagious and most vicious in its impact on those infected.
Once the Guardian report was published, Prime Minister’s Adviser on Health Dr Zafar Mirza sprang into action and announced confirmation of the deadly strain, saying that they were just in the process of confirmation of the reports. In a tweet, he justified sitting on the report: “Before we proceeded there was a need for a full genomic sequencing to determine the cause of the virus. The situation is under control. First response already generated and full-fledged campaign will start on 11th Nov”. Denying any cover-up, he said, “Absolutely no cover-up. Sabin-like type 2 derived virus outbreak in Pakistan is vigilantly being monitored and appropriately responded. Such outbreaks are being reported from countries even after Polio eradication e.g. Nigeria, China, Indonesia, Congo.”
Now, when the onslaught of the P2 strain has been confirmed, a few questions beg answers from the government. How will it improve transparency? Similarly, it is imperative for Babar Bin Atta to come forward and explain his position on the accusations of hiding the strain’s outbreak and launching an undercover vaccination drive.
Pakistan’s anti-polio drive has made impressive strides over the years bringing down cases from 18,000 in 1995 to double digits in 2019. With a renewed vigour, we should step forward to make a polio-free Pakistan.



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