Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries where Polio still exists. Though its presence has been largely controlled but it has not been completely eradicated. This dreadful disease has been the object of international health organisations who have been trying since the last three decades to get rid of it. The overwhelming success of these efforts could be gauged from the fact that 96 percent reduction has been recorded in Pakistan since 2014. It is well-known that the concerted efforts have been largely successful confining it to just three countries.
The international health agencies keep a very close eye on emergence of polio cases and stringently monitor the issue. These agencies are World Health Organisation and UNICEF operating closely with governments and have also co-opted Rotary International and various NGOs. The joint programme they operate is given the name of Global Polio Eradication Initiative and it operates globally through specific outfits in countries. The result has witnessed steady decline of the incidence of polio.
Two countries where polio still exists are neighbourly Afghanistan and Pakistan who share very long borders. The border between both the countries stretches to 2,430 kilometres and most of it is rugged and mountainous. The problem is exacerbated due to the fact that the border between both countries is extremely porous witnessing almost free movement of tribal people from one country to the other. The tribal community inhabiting these areas resists any attempt to regulate their free access as they claim it as their inherent right extended to them since centuries. Many large tribes settled in these border regions are settled on both sides of the border and keep on moving frequently.
The unrestricted movement of people across the border is being held responsible for emergence of new cases of poliovirus. The region is otherwise very volatile and it is difficult to keep a steady administrative control on war-like tribals. Pakistan has started building a border fence with Afghanistan to contain incidence of terrorism and it will also reduce transmission of polio through demographic migrations.
The result of this unhindered movement is that the first case of poliovirus detected in the New Year is from Bajaur Agency located in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the extreme northern part of the country. Additionally, the presence of poliovirus is also confirmed to be in border towns of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces. Both these provinces border Afghanistan. Along with the border areas of the country, polio cases were also reported from the most populous Punjab province.
The polio-eradication drive in Pakistan has been hugely successful and since its inception in 1994 polio outbreaks have consistently declined. The virus was very aggressive in 2014 when 202 cases were reported and it was widely believed that Taliban authorities in their strongholds in border regions banned polio-immunisation efforts and subsequently attacked vaccination teams. However efforts to continue the anti-polio drive did not lose steam and the figures of reported cases gradually receded. It was accordingly reported that 54 cases were reported in 2015, dropped to 20 in 2016 and 8 in 2017. The scourge returned in 2018 when a dozen cases were reported in the country out of which 11 were detected in the border areas.
Spearheading the anti-polio drive is respected philanthropist of Pakistan, Aziz Memon, who is the national chair of Pakistan Polio Plus Committee and is indefatigably involved in this tedious exercise. He coordinates efforts with the government and has prevailed upon the officialdom to increase the number of personnel looking after permanent transit posts where children could be vaccinated for saving them from polio. It is reported that the aggressive vaccination drive has seen 1.6 million children having been vaccinated at more than 380 border points.
Aziz Memon is very active in polio-eradication efforts and his work is internationally recognised. He is part of the larger Rotary organisation and successfully argues his case for increasing funding for the mission. Largely due to hard work of his team more than 38.7 million children under the age of five have been immunised through routine national immunisation days. Children are administered four doses between the ages of four months and six years. He maintains frequent links with the government authorities and has recently called on the president and prime minister of Pakistan impressing upon them the need to persevere with countrywide anti-polio drive.
Polio is a debilitating disease contracted through poliomyelitis virus mostly found in areas with poor sanitation. It swiftly spreads through contaminated food and water and unfortunately there is no cure for it. The only way to tackle it is through intensive prevention through prompt immunisation. Aziz Memon is deeply conscious of the underlying causes of the disease and is very committed to provision of clean water to communities living in cramped localities mostly on the fringes of towns and cities. He is regularly engaged in installing reverse osmosis water plants through consistent public donations. TW
Talal Wasif Qavi is an advocate