Polio outbreak in Balochistan sets off alarm bells
ISLAMABAD: The outbreak of a hitherto unknown strain of polio virus in Qilla Abdullah and Pishin has set alarm bells ringing and prompted the centre to ask the Balochistan government to launch an anti-polio campaign in the province within 30 days.
Ten cases of the new virus, named “Sabin-like type 2 poliovirus”, were reported in two Pakhtun-dominated districts of the province over the past three weeks.
“The districts are frequented by people from the troubled areas of Fata. The situation is grim because of refusal by parents to get their children vaccinated against the crippling disease as the areas are under the influence of extremist groups opposed to the anti-polio drive.
“The extremists belonging to Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan have established their cells in Balochistan and warn people against vaccination of their children,” Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), told Dawn.
She said an HRCP team had visited Pishin and Qilla Abdullah in May to meet the local people and it was revealed that extremists had established their camps and were involved in killing people from Punjab. She said the people mostly coming from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other tribal areas brought the virus with them.
The Prime Minister Office has also declared ‘red alert’ against the poor state of polio eradication drive in Balochistan and asked the administration to launch an emergency campaign in the province.
In a letter addressed to the chief secretary of Balochistan, copy of which is available with Dawn, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Shehnaz Wazirali has conveyed the utter disappointment of the highest office in response to the way polio eradication drive is being carried out in Balochistan.
“The situation in Quetta block, which includes Killa Abdullah and Pishin, is aggravated by the continued resistance to and intransigence of the district health authorities and supervisory cadre of vaccinators,” it said.
The letter said the new polio virus had not only affected 10 children in Pakistan but also paralysed two children in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. “I want to draw your attention to the reporting of Sabin-like polio virus cases in Qilla Abdullah and two from neighbouring Afghanistan,” Shehnaz Wazirali said in the letter.
The PM Office also expressed concern over the low level of routine immunisation and asked the provincial government to immediately hold three rounds of anti-polio campaign in Qilla Abdullah beginning from the second week of December. “Highest quality should be ensured with strict monitoring and zero tolerance for under performance.”
The letter called for urgent steps to institute the WHO’s direct disbursement mechanism across the board for payment to the polio team staff. Measures should also be taken to improve the routine immunisation coverage in Qilla Abdullah on an emergency basis with clear targets and milestones given to district health teams.
“Stubbornness of the provincial health department and government supervisors for polio eradication in Balochistan is one of the biggest reasons behind dismal performance of the polio programme that has resulted in detection of new strain of poliovirus in Pakistan and threatens to impose travel restrictions on citizens that may put the country in an extremely embarrassing situation in the near future,” the letter said.
WHO TEAM: A special six-member international delegation of the World Health Organisation, led by polio eradication expert Dr Mohammed Mohammedi, is currently holding discussions with officials of the Balochistan government on ways of combating the new strain of poliomyelitis virus.
Dr Mohammedi told Dawn that the delegation was holding brainstorming sessions with the provincial officials to control the situation. “We had a fruitful session with the provincial chief secretary today and recommended for holding three emergency anti-polio campaigns in Quetta, Qilla Abdullah and Pishin districts in 30 days to control the spread of the virus to other parts of the country,” he said, adding that it was decided that the first emergency polio round in the province would be launched on Dec 10.
When contacted, Noorul Haq Baloch, Additional Secretary of Health in Balochistan, painted a rosy picture and said only four cases of polio had been detected this year as compared to 74 cases last year. “Polio cases have been on decline in Balochistan,” he claimed.
He said Sabin-like polio virus was a new disease and the provincial health department was planning to conduct three rounds on Dec 10 and 23 and Jan 7 on the directives of the chief secretary.
Mr Baloch disclosed that some health officials had expressed reservations over the new system of payment to the officials involved in the campaign, but said things would improve in the coming days.
He rejected a perception that the constant movement of people from the troubled areas of Fata to Killa Abdullah was one of the major reasons for the spread of polio and said most of the cases ware detected in areas where people were poor and illiterate.
Shahnaz Wazir Ali told Dawn on Sunday that most refusal cases came from Pushto-dominated areas of Killa Abdullah. “The main cause of refusal is illiteracy and ignorance,” she said.
She expressed concern over the children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa consistently being missed during anti-polio campaigns. She said Karachi’s polio cases also revealed that a child contracted the virus from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“In Balochistan, the problem also occurs due to zonal health supervisors as they want to include their own people in the campaign. We have no objection but we want work,” she said.