Record Pakistan polio caseload needs government intervention: expert

Pakistan needs to make polio eradication a top priority, warns expert 

Polio will continue to spread in Pakistan if the country’s government fails to make eradication a top priority, an expert has warned, as cases in the Asian country reach a 15-year high.

“We have two districts in Pakistan and the combined population in those two districts is 3,500. Considering the population that needs to be vaccinated, I would say it is a very difficult task and unless the government will put it in their top priority this will not be accomplished soon,” said Mansoor Ul Haq, District Governor for 3272 – representing half of Pakistan – at Rotary International. The organisation helps to raise awareness around polio and funding to eradicate the paralysing disease.

“It is a matter of awareness, but we also need to focus more on the practical aspect of doing this and this is not being taken up by the government very well, as they have their own issues. If we can touch the highest peak in the last 15 years, my fear is the situation will get worse,” he added.

Pakistan has recorded its highest number of polio cases for 15 years, with 202 new cases detected so far in 2014, above the 199 cases registered in 2001 but below the 558 cases in 1999, according to a BBC report.

Health officials have blamed the lack of progress on militant attacks on vaccination teams in the country’s north-western region. Polio cases had been restricted to north Waziristan; a troubled area and a stronghold of the Taliban militant group that did not allow anti-polio campaigns such as those initiated by Rotary, said Rotary’s Ul Haq.

However, following long-awaited government intervention in the area the situation changed, he said. “About a million people moved out of that area and they are staying in different cities now. We call them internally displaced people. Initially we were hopeful when they leave they will stay in restricted camps, but as it happened they stayed all over the country and moved in with different relatives,” he explained.

“The strength of the Taliban in North Waziristan is no longer there as their backbone has been broken, but at the same time the side effect is that the government was probably not very well prepared to vaccinate everyone, as they had an urgency to evacuate everyone at the time,” he said.

Since December 2012, around 60 people, some of them health workers and police protecting medical teams, have been killed by Taliban militants targeting polio teams, the BBC said.

Earlier in 2014, the World Health Organisation placed travel restrictions on Pakistan, forcing all citizens to provide proof of vaccination prior to travelling overseas.

Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan are the only three countries globally where polio remains endemic. The disease is crippling and in some cases fatal, mainly infecting children under the age of five.