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Stopping a polio outbreak in its tracks

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
An infant is given polio drops during a UNICEF-supported nationwide polio immunization campaign.

By M. Ali Fahim

THATTA DISTRICT, Pakistan, 5 July 2005 – Nine-month-old Asma was a healthy little girl until she suddenly fell ill with a high fever on a fateful day in May 2003. At a nearby rural health centre, examination and tests confirmed that she had contracted polio. Her left leg was paralyzed, and even today, Asma can’t stand still without support.

“In September 2003, Thatta was struggling with a near-epidemic situation,” recalls Dr. Hfiz Memon, Executive District Officer for Health. “As many as seven confirmed cases of polio - in 4 girls and 3 boys - were reported from this district alone. The alarming situation sent shockwaves across the country,” continued Dr. Memon.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005/Zaidi
Polio affected three-year-old Asma when she was nine months old. Her left leg was paralyzed, and to this day, Asma can’t stand still without support.

Despite the serious nature of the polio outbreak, local residents were reluctant to have their children vaccinated. “There was a lack of commitment at every level - parents, religious leaders, teachers, health workers - and a clear sign of fatigue and disinterest,” explained Dr. Memon.

To eradicate polio and protect children in Thatta and elsewhere in Pakistan, UNICEF-supported immunization campaigns were kicked off. More than 560 mobile vaccination teams travelled by foot, bicycle and motorbike to reach 220,000 children under five, who live sparsely spread across the district’s vast and barren land. In addition, 85 health posts were set up for routine immunization, and another 32 transit points were built to track children who were missed in the campaigns.

Massive radio outreach campaigns and mosque announcements also played a crucial role in encouraging the parents to bring their children for immunization. “By and large, communities are responding, but it’s not always a smooth sail,” says Dr. M. Dawood, a health official from the WHO.

© UNICEF Pakistan/2005
A walk to raise awareness about the polio immunization campaign at Thatt District, Sindh Province.

Dr. Dawood remembers one instance when a community leader refused to allow the vaccinators access to his area. He had read a newspaper report reporting the polio vaccine’s inefficacy. “When I heard about this I went and met the councillor and tried to persuade him but he would not budge. So I took my youngest son - in front of the councillor and all the villagers - and gave polio drops to him. The technique worked well,” says Dr. Dawood.

Since 2003 Pakistan has made remarkable progress in eliminating polio. During each immunization round, nearly 32 million children under age five received the oral polio vaccine. In 2004 the number of polio cases was reduced to 53, and now in 2005, just nine cases have been confirmed so far. Thatta, as well as the rest of Pakistan, is on the fast track to achieve the goal of polio eradication. However, Pakistan and five other countries - Nigeria, Niger, Egypt, India, and Afghanistan - still remain polio-endemic. To eradicate polio locally is a crucial step in stopping polio transmission globally.



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