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Pakistan Polio Outbreak Sets Back Global Eradication Goal

A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door polio vaccination campaign at a slum area in Lahore, Pakistan, May 23, 2022.

Pakistan has reported its seventh case of wild polio virus this year after the country had gone 15 months without a single child being crippled by the highly contagious disease.

The national eradication program said Thursday that “a 7-month-old girl was confirmed paralyzed” by the virus in North Waziristan, a turbulent Pakistani district bordering Afghanistan.

“All children confirmed with wild polio this year belong to North Waziristan, where more cases are expected due to high refusal rates and instances of finger-marking without vaccination during campaigns,” the program noted.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries where polio continues to paralyze children, although case numbers in recent years have significantly dropped on both sides of the border.

The last time a child was paralyzed in Pakistan was in January 2021. One wild polio virus infection was reported in Afghanistan this year and four in 2021.

“We are administering the polio vaccine to children up to the age of 10 at all entry and exit points … to stop the spread of the virus (to the rest of Pakistan),” said Shahzad Baig, the national emergency operations coordinator.

A senior health official told VOA that many parents in the area continue to refuse polio drops for their children during national vaccination campaigns while others resent repeated door-to-door visits by vaccinators as intrusive.

The refusals stem from suspicions that the immunization is a Western-led conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children. The false information has triggered attacks against health care workers and security forces escorting them, resulting in the deaths of scores of people in recent years and slowing down the eradication efforts.

Officials said that parents suspicious of inoculation campaigns sometimes in collusion with health workers get hold off special markers used by vaccinators to put a colored spot on the fingers of children who have been vaccinated. The finger marking is used to determine the exact scale of refusal rates.

Health workers pass through an alley to give polio vaccines to children in a neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan, May 23, 2022.
Health workers pass through an alley to give polio vaccines to children in a neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan, May 23, 2022.

Insurgents are also active in the Waziristan region and see the polio vaccine as an effort to collect intelligence on their activities.

The latest case in Pakistan has raised to nine the number of global polio infections in 2022, including one in Malawi, according to data from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).

The outbreak in Malawi was “genetically” linked to wild polio virus that was detected in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province in 2019, the GPEI said.

Last week, Pakistan conducted its second national five-day immunization campaign of the year, deploying more than 300,000 health care workers and reaching 43 million children under the age of 5.

Officials said the campaign was “synchronized with Afghanistan so that children on both sides of the border received vaccines at the same time and are protected from polio.

Polio crippled approximately 20,000 Pakistani children a year in the early 1990s.