ISLAMABAD - Around 40 million children missed polio drops in the country due to suspension of April’s nationwide anti-polio drive after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) surfaced, The Nation learnt on Saturday. 

According to the data of Pakistan Polio Eradication Program (PPEP) 146 polio cases were reported in 2019 while 39 have been recorded so far in 2020.

National Coordinator (NC) on Emergency Operations Centre for Polio Eradication (EOCPE) Rana Muhammad Safdar talking to The Nation said that the nationwide anti-polio drive to be held in mid of April was suspended due to COVID-19 situation in the country.

“40 million children were to be immunized during this campaign which couldn’t occur,” he said.

Dr Rana Safdar also said that the after the national campaign, a sub national campaign is also scheduled in the month of May, but launching of the upcoming campaign also depends on the developing situation regarding COVID-19.

He said that the government had successfully carried out two back to back nationwide anti-polio drives in the month of December last year and in February 2020, achieving immunization for 99 percent of the population. “Later a targeted campaign was also held successfully, but the nationwide campaign to be launched on April 13 this year was suspended as the COVID-19 is also on its peak,” he said.

Other regular vaccination drives also put on hold

He said that back-to-back effective anti-polio drives during this year were necessary to reduce the number of polio cases which again surged during the previous year when the nation-wide campaigns were suspended.

“Suspension of anti-polio drives develops immunity gaps and it is difficult to again build that immunity in the children,” he said.

Dr. Rana Safdar also said that along with anti-polio drives in the country, other routine immunization vaccination programs are also being affected. He said that the polio staff is also being utilized for controlling the spread of coronavirus.

Dr. Rana Safdar also said that the polio drives will be rescheduled keeping in viewing the current conditions. Earlier the National Emergency Operations Center (NEOC) has issued a letter to all provincial authorities to utilize the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI) staff without compromising Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP) surveillance.

The authorities also asked for the training of PEI staff to trickle down its expertise at district level. The PEI trained staff will search the Severe Acute Respiratory Infections (SARI) at community level and submit the report to government focal points nominated for COVID-19.

NEOC has directed all Emergency Operations Centres (EOC) in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Baluchistan, Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK), Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Municipal Corporation Islamabad (MCI) and District Health Officer (DHO) Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) to utilize PEI surveillance staff for synergistic surveillance of COVID-19.

Suspension of the anti-polio drive last year after attacks on polio teams damaged the campaign substantially, as around 250,000 children were missed vaccination and the tally of polio cases for 2019 jumped to 134.

This was the highest figure for number of yearly cases since 2014 and will increase further till end of this month. According to the polio map, 306 cases were reported in 2014, while the number decreased to 8 in 2017. However, the number increased to 12 in 2018 when interim government and later newly-formed Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government led the programme.

But, 2019 remained damaging for the campaign when the government in efforts of reforming the polio programme lost the confidence of the public in some parts of the country and a resistance was faced in form of attacks on the polio workers, and the toll of polio cases reported in 2019 has reached 134.