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‘Negative social media content undermining fight against polio’

Pakistan Peoples Party MPA Sharmila Faruqi said on Saturday Pakistan had reported 84 polio cases in 2020 out of which 22 cases had been reported from Sindh, 26 from Balochistan, 22 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 14 from Punjab.

The country reported 147 polio cases in 2019, 12 in 2018, eight in 2017, 20 in 2016 and 54 in 2015.

“There are more than 3,000 polio centres across the Sindh province through which the Sindh Health Department is providing service to polio patients. Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that mainly affects children, particularly under the age of five years. The poliovirus is transmitted through contaminated water and food. This disease spreads from person to person. The poliovirus attacks the nervous system which causes paralysis mostly in the lower limbs of children and it is often permanent,” Faruqi said while addressing a cemeony at Arts Council on Sunday, a day before the start of a new polio drive in Karachi.

She said Sindh was the province most affected by Covid-19, and, as a result, essential immunisation coverage also suffered. The second wave of Covid-19 was under way, which was feared to be more adverse, but despite this, the essential services of routine immunisation and polio campaigns would continue, she added.

The PPP legislator said Sindh conducted an anti-polio campaign in Karachi in July 2020, followed by regular campaigns in August, September and October and then in November and December.

According to a report, she said, in October 2020, Sindh achieved 97 per cent overall coverage, with 93 per cent coverage in Karachi during the anti-polio campaign, but the level of refusals still raised concern.

In the August 2020 campaign, there were 120,000 refusals in Karachi, which reduced to 102,000 in September and 82,000 in October.

The MPA said that the provincial health team was forging alliances on polio with major political leaders and macro-level influencers across the political parties, with a specific focus on active involvement of Pashtun influencers.

“Political and tribal leaders have been mapped and engaged and are now supporting polio campaigns. A memorandum of understanding has been signed with the Islamic Medical Association, which is now actively highlighting the importance of immunisation and dispelling myths and rumours in the community about polio vaccine.”

She said that mainly on religious grounds and due to some false notions, people, particularly Pakhtuns, in some areas of Karachi, including Korangi and Baldia, were reluctant to administer polio drops to their children. However, she added, the Sindh government was holding meetings with religious and other political parties’ leaders to end these misconceptions, which were because of negative social media content which had played havoc with the programme. Negative videos on WhatsApp and Facebook had heavily contributed to the misconceptions about polio drops, she added.

The Sindh government was striving hard to make polio campaigns more comprehensive to get 100 per cent results and that was why the health sector had been made its top three priorities, she said.

In Karachi’s District South alone, the number of families reluctant to administer polio drops to their children, according to Deputy Commissioner South Irshad Ali Sodhar, has been reduced by half. Earlier, there were 8,000 refusal cases, which have been dropped to 4,000.

Apart from Faruqi and Sodhar, lady health workers from across the province also attended the ceremony.

MPA Faruqi initiated the campaign by administering polio drops to children in the ceremony. She said that the real warriors of campaign were those lady heath workers who were going door to door to save lives of children.

“Every parent knows that all their assets are their children,” she said, adding that it was not a normal task which these workers were performing for keeping the children of our society healthy.

She said she had an idea about how difficult it must be for these female workers who left their homes early in the morning and remained in the field till dusk and administer polio drops, door to door, for a nominal salary.

DC Sodhar said that in District South, their teams achieved 98 per cent of their polio coverage target. He asked the lady health workers not to worry about refusal cases, as through proper advocacy and campaigns they had brought down the number of families reluctant to administer polio from 8,000 to 4,000.

Year’s first drive

Around nine million children would be administered oral polio vaccine (OPV) drops during a seven-day polio vaccination drive in the 29 districts of Sindh starting Monday, January 11, said polio eradication initiative officials said on Friday.

“The Emergency Operation Centre [EOC] for polio in Sindh will launch a province-wide polio campaign from January 11 to January 17, 2021, as part of the national immunisation days. This is the first campaign of 2021 in which polio drops will be given to approximately nine million children under five years of age across the 29 districts of the province,” an official of the EOC Sindh said.

The official maintained that of these nine million children, more than two million live in Karachi, and added that in order to boost immunity, the children from six to 59 months of age would also be provided vitamins A drops.

The campaign will be conducted while following the World Health Organisation-recommended Covid-19 prevention protocols that include wearing of masks by the workers, their temperatures being checked before deployment, not handling children directly, not entering houses, spending limited time with families, knocking on doors with pens, rulers or elbows rather than hands, and reducing the length and attendance of meetings.

“As a result of the pandemic, the gap in campaigns from March to July left an immunity gap in children which we have been addressing through back-to-back monthly polio campaigns since August 2020. Thanks to these campaigns, Sindh has not reported a single case of polio since July 2020. If we continue with the same momentum, we will soon see significant results. While we deal with the pandemic, we must also deal with childhood immunisation to prevent childhood diseases”, the official added.

Pakistan is one of the two polio-endemic countries in the world along with Afghanistan and it reported a total of 84 polio cases in 2020, of which 22 were from Sindh.

The Pakistan Paediatric Association, Pakistan Medical Islamic Medical Association, medical experts across the world and major religious scholars in Pakistan and across the region have endorsed the oral polio vaccine which is the safest and most effective way for preventing polio.

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