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Battle to contain Polio in Pakistan

Thanks to global immunisation programmes, polio remains endemic in just four countries across the world – Nigeria, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Following a large-scale programme across the African continent in 2010, attention is now focusing on Asia. In January this year, India began a huge drive against the disease, with a programme to vaccinate 172 million children. And in the same month, the President of Pakistan launched an emergency response to polio.

Pakistan has been struggling to contain transmission of the polio virus and is the only polio-endemic country to see an increase in cases. In 2009, 89 children were paralyzed with polio and this number jumped to 144 in 2010. Polio is a highly infectious virus which mainly strikes young children. It is transmitted through contaminated food or water and once inside the body, it can multiply and spread to the nervous system. In the worst cases, the infection leads to permanent paralysis.

Already in 2011, 51 polio cases have been reported in Pakistan. The majority of these are in places already known to contain the polio virus – Karachi city, districts in Balochistan Province and areas along the North West border. Here, regular movements of people between Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan make control of the virus extremely difficult. Now medical experts are worrying about cases being reported in new areas. A two-year-old girl has contracted the disease in the Diamer district of Gilgit-Baltistan in the north, the first case to be reported in this region for over 12 years. This is raising fears in Pakistan that polio is spreading and the World Health Organisation has begun immediate vaccination measures in the area to try and prevent any wider outbreak.

Part of the problem is that some parents refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated. The two-year girl had missed her Oral Polio Vaccine because of the family’s refusal. With the launch of the Emergency Plan and a national polio vaccination campaign, health officials are hoping to raise awareness among parents about the importance of vaccination. The President, Asif Ali Zardari, administered a polio vaccine to a child at the launch in January. Mr Zardari promised there would be “strict oversight” of the plan at both national and provincial levels, saying it would be “criminal negligence” not to eradicate polio from Pakistan. The campaign is close to the President’s heart. His wife, the recently deceased Benazir Bhutto, was the first prime minster to administer an oral polio drop to a child, their daughter Aseefa Butto Zardari. Now an adult, Ms Zardari has become Pakistan’s Ambassador for Polio Eradication and the President promised all those present that his daughter would “work with you to end polio”. 

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