After the reports of 79 deaths within five months in Khyber Pakhtukhwa (KP) due to a measles outbreak, the coalition government of KP, led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), initiated its 12 day anti-measles campaign on May 19, with an aim of vaccinating around 9.6 million children under the age of 10 in the province. This campaign is a part of the PTI’s Sehat Ka Insaaf (justice in health) initiative. The campaign cost, as estimated by Dr Jan Afridi, Deputy Director Provincial, stands around $ 10 million. A campaign that began to immunise the children of KP against measles turned fatal very soon with reports of children losing their lives in various districts of the province including Charsadda, Peshawar, Kohat and Hangu right after they were immunised with the anti-measles vaccination.
On May 21, six children fell unconscious after being administered measles vaccines in Kohat district. A team of health officials went to a private school in Jangal Khel to vaccinate children against measles after which the students fell unconscious and were rushed to the Liaqat Memorial Hospital. On May 19, at least 23 students of Government Girls Primary School in Dalan union council of Thal, Hangu had fallen unconscious after they were administered anti-measles injections. Two children passed away on June 1 in Charsadda after being injected with anti-measles vaccine and several other cases were reported. Measles is a highly infectious disease, presenting fever caused by nose and throat secretions of an infected person, as he coughs and sneezes. The symptoms include small white spots inside the child’s cheeks. It can be prevented with two vaccination doses, the first at the age of nine months and the second at the age of 15 months. The provincial minister for health, Shahram Tarakai, announced an investigation into the matter and initial reports suggested that the government was blaming the staff who administered the vaccines for not being properly trained, while there were also reports about the deaths being caused because of expired vaccines being used. There is still an uncertainty about what caused the deaths but what is certain is that hundreds of children across the province have been hospitalised after receiving the vaccines, out of which many have already lost their lives. This issue has been reported several times over the course of the past few weeks but the government of KP has continued to abdicate its responsibility by blaming either the ‘untrained’ staff who administered the vaccines or the federal government for procuring expired vaccines and handing them over to the KP provincial government. Despite the report of the first death of a child during the anti-measles campaign, the KP government did not stop the campaign but continued without investigating the causes of the death overlooking the safety of more children.
“In civilised societies, when something of this sort happens, the ministers in charge usually tender their resignations and the government is expected to investigate the matter thoroughly to ensure the safety of the citizens who are exposed to such dangers. But this would be too much to ask for from governments in Pakistan in general, and from the government of Pakhtunkhwa, led by the PTI in specific. The reason being the way in which Pakhtunkhwa’s government has continuously defended its decisions despite their consequences as borne by the people of Pakhtunkhwa during their first year in power,” said Khushal Khattak, Central President of the Awami National Party (ANP). The damage that has been caused by this particular issue goes beyond the hospitalisation and the deaths of the children. KP and FATA have always had problems with vaccination campaigns, specifically after the way the anti-polio campaign has been targeted non-stop in these areas for the last few years. Now because of this lethal anti-measles campaign, the trust of the residents of these areas has further decreased in allowing their children to be vaccinated. Health became a provincial subject after the passing of the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution a few years back. This means that the provincial government is directly responsible for the health policies it outlines and for the implementation of any health related projects it undertakes. In this particular instance, the provincial government of KP is thus directly responsible for the lapse in their anti-measles campaign. So far, no one from the PTI’s central leadership, including Imran Khan, has said anything about the hospitalisation of hundreds of children or about the deaths of children because of the anti-measles campaign. This is a matter of serious concern for the residents of KP who voted PTI into power and who believed in the slogan of change and a better standard of living as promised by the PTI. The disinterest of PTI is of grave concern for the people of the province in which they rule can only add to their voters distrust in them. This issue has been raised by the ANP, part of the opposition parties in the province, on several forums but the government of KP and the PTI have yet to react.
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