Dr Rana Muhammad Safdar  -  As we enter the final stages of our nationwide struggle against polio with only eight polio cases reported last year, let us take a moment on this Pakistan Day to reflect upon a timeless message from the Father of our Nation, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who once said: “My message to you all is of hope, courage and confidence. Let us mobilize all our resources in a systematic and organized way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation.”

Pakistan’s journey towards polio-free status has been long and bumpy. But pursuing Quaid’s principles of unity, faith and discipline, we have fought tooth and nail to build a future in which polio no longer endangers the children, families and communities across our country as it once did.

As we started our efforts during early 90’s, polio used to paralyse almost 20,000 Pakistani children every year. Only a few years ago, the virus was widespread in Pakistan, leaving as many as 306 children paralysed in 2014. Inaccessibility to more than half a million children was letting the virus to grow and move around freely. Many of our frontline vaccinators worked in fear and insecurity and some even made the ultimate sacrifice. And our programme was not up to the task: our service delivery was patchy, leading to too many missed children. All this led the Independent Monitoring Board to label our national polio eradication programme “catastrophic”.

We needed to change. And we have. Government’s commitment, leadership and oversight at every level have been the foundation for this change. All major political parties got fully aligned with the programme and ostensibly consider polio eradication as an indicator of our national pride. One of our first steps was to build a truly united programme - we committed to a new “one team, one roof, one plan, one family approach” under the present leadership. Working with the sense of collective responsibility, data driven programme management, supportive supervision & monitoring coupled with immaculate accountability, started paying dividends with case counts coming down to 54 in 2015, 20 in 2016 and only 8 last year.

In the past couple of years, we have built a programme that responds to the needs of our communities and aims to address the risks our communities face. We shifted our focus from children covered to children missed, focusing on those we were not serving. Practically this required better empowerment of thousands of our frontline workers through emphasis on selection, training, supportive supervision and their retention by constant motivation and timely payment for the incredible work they do.

To turn the small, but important, proportion of parents suspicious of polio vaccine required working hand in hand with doctors, tribal elders, media groups and religious scholars. Thanks to their support, today, Pakistan has a 95 per cent polio vaccine acceptance rate, which is one of the highest in the world, if not the highest.

The real heroes behind the turnaround in Pakistan’s polio situation are hundreds of thousands frontline workers who have operated tirelessly and selflessly in all weather conditions and across all terrains to ensure that each and every child in every community is vaccinated and fully protected from this crippling disease. Our nation and future generation will remain thankful to them for this incredible effort.

Moving towards the finish-line, let’s remember that the war against polio is not over yet. The cunning virus is still fighting for its survival. Our strong polio surveillance system continues to detect the virus in sewerage water from different parts of the country including in Karachi, Peshawar and Killa Abdullah. So as the virus mounts its last attack, we are focused on addressing the gaps that are preventing us from achieving high population immunity in remaining core polio reservoirs. To mitigate the risk posed by frequent population movements within the country, an extensive work has been done to better understand the movement patterns to ultimately ensure that they are part of all the vaccination campaigns. We also continue to closely coordinate with the Afghanistan Polio Eradication programme to synchronize campaigns and ensure that all children moving frequently across borders are fully vaccinated against polio.

Vaccinating every child both in routine as well as during each campaign is our motive. Today, we all have a role to play to ensure that not a single child is paralysed from polio in Pakistan ever again. Oral polio vaccine (OPV) is one of the safest vaccines available and, administered multiple times, it protects a child from the lifelong and debilitating effects of polio.

We are closest ever to our goal. To achieve polio-free Pakistan in 2018, this Pakistan Day, let us all come together as a nation to ensure that our future children no longer must suffer from the crippling disease of polio. Advocate all the communities and families to open their doors to Sehat Muhafiz and let them vaccinate every child with two vaccine drops. This is the only way we can collectively ensure that we rid polio of our land.

Let us drive this campaign to the finish line now with the hope, courage, confidence, determination and discipline that the Quaid envisioned for each one of us when he helped create this beautiful country.

The author is national coordinator of Emergency Operation Centre for Polio Eradication in Pakistan. Having diverse national and international public health experience, he specialises in highly valued areas of Emerging Infectious Disease Epidemiology as well as Health Metrics & Evaluation. He can be reached at drsafdar64@yahoo.com.