Huma Khawar highlights the role of donor agencies in polio eradication
On Dec 19, Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general along with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) condemned the killing.
“Those killed were among thousands who work selflessly across Pakistan to eradicate polio,” the statement said. “Such attacks deprive Pakistan’s most vulnerable populations — especially children — of basic life-saving health interventions,” they said in a joint statement.
Since 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative — spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and Unicef — has achieved 99 per cent reduction in polio incidence worldwide.
Unicef has been supporting the government of Pakistan since the commencement of polio eradication campaign in 1994, contributing into vaccine forecasts and provision as well as social mobilisation.
“The security situation in Pakistan is no doubt a challenge for humanitarian agencies working across the country, particularly in the tribal and restive area of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is also sad that certain groups tend to see humanitarian activities as part of some agenda, which directly affects the work on the ground and increases risk of harm to front line workers,” says Dennis King, chief Polio Unit Unicef Pakistan.
Anahitta Shirzad, procurement specialist, Unicef Pakistan, says that they work with governments and partners to ensure a sustainable, uninterrupted supply of affordable and quality vaccines. The many steps in the supply chain includes working with partners, donors and recipient governments, purchasing and transporting vaccines; training health workers and galvanising local communities to make sure every child is immunised, Since 2003, Unicef has worked in partnership with the government of Pakistan, other donor agencies and WHO to support polio eradication.
The vaccines are procured for every polio campaign reaching nationally 34.4 million children under five. On request from the government, a Vaccine Management Committee has been established supported by Unicef, where efficient use of quality vaccines is ensured, adds Shirzad.
Dr D.S. Akram, a paediatrician says, “Polio eradication from Pakistan has become ‘an enigma’. It has become symbolic of the social and political crisis which has been created in our country”. Whereas neighbouring countries with equally difficult environments have successfully reached the target of preventing children from getting afflicted by polio, Pakistan is still struggling.
Civil society organisations should ensure that not only the polio campaign but also routine immunisation is done effectively.
They are are in close contact with communities and become their voice, a ‘bridge’ between the government, UN agencies, donors, community leaders, recipients of vaccines and their care-givers. This will encourage the community to voice their misgivings. The target should be ultimately, to create a demand for immunisation from the community itself.
Rotary International is a major player in the polio eradication campaign since 1985 funding which by now has reached a total of US$1bn. “The intensity with which the campaigns were carried out however alarmed religious extremists, who considered it a western conspiracy, which caused refusals from parents not to permit the frequent vaccination of their children, as at least infants up to the age of five should receive more than six times to achieve immunity,” says Rotarian Dr Hans Frey.
With an intensive information campaign the number of refusals had been brought down to below one per cent of the more than 30 million infants in Pakistan. “When Dr Afridi undertook an officially unauthorised vaccination activity in Abottabad on behalf of the American CIA to help identify Osama Bin Laden there, refusals shot up again, leading to the assassination of nine vaccinators.”
After coming very close to eradication with 28 cases nation wide in 2005, Pakistan saw a rapid increase to 117 cases in 2008 and 144 in 2010 and 198 in 2011. Indeed with only 56 cases recorded in 2012, Pakistan has to secure the progress made so far with great efforts.