Finally, despite all odds, things seem to be looking up for anti-polio initiatives in Pakistan. It seems the latest report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which minced no words in declaring Peshawar the world’s largest reservoir of the polio virus strain, has woken up the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the real and inherent danger of ignoring the threat of spread of the disease. It has launched the ‘Sehat ka Insaf’ (justice for health) programme in which it looks to address as many as nine vaccine-preventable diseases of which polio is one. Instead of depending on NGOs and UN agencies, the government itself will carry out this campaign in an attempt to reinvigorate the provincial government’s role in the betterment of healthcare for its people. The programme aims to educate the people through public service messages on how to best protect themselves against disease, free medical camps will be erected and 12,500 volunteers will participate. One need not reiterate how welcome a step this is by Imran Khan’s PTI government but one does wish it had not taken standing at the mouth of the abyss for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s leaders to launch this much needed initiative.
It is damning to be one of the three countries left in the world from which polio has not been eradicated — Afghanistan and Nigeria included. WHO has cautioned that if Pakistan does not manage to curb the steady rise of polio within its borders by 2015, it will have no choice but to declare an international emergency, halting all forms of travel from Pakistan. One cannot begin to imagine what impact this will have on the country, delegating it to the status of a pariah. The dangerous cocktail of violent terror attacks against healthcare workers participating in the anti-polio drives — more than 32 so far — throughout the country, mixed with false propaganda issued by the extremists on how polio vaccines are a western conspiracy to curb the Muslim population, allowed incidences of polio to increase to 72 fresh cases in 2013, most of which were recorded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This kind of resurgence of polio has the potential to spread like wildfire all over the country in no time. One can understand the international community’s concerns — it has worked hard to eradicate the disease from the world and will not tolerate countries like ours ruining those efforts. While the Sehat ka Insaf programme must be carried forward no matter what the risks, it is imperative that all those working in the field to vaccinate our children be provided security so that they can carry on without fear for their lives in this noble task. *