LONDON/ISLAMBAD - Local Afghan Taliban leaders are hindering global efforts to end polio, but Afghanistan and Pakistan must continue their fight to “get to zero” cases, the philanthropist Bill Gates said Monday. In a telephone interview with Reuters, Gates was optimistic about the global plan to eradicate the paralysing viral disease, but said Afghanistan’s conflict and power struggles hamper progress.

“The big issue there is always with the Taliban,” said Gates, whose multi-billion dollar philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest funders of the polio eradication campaign.

Polio is a virus that spreads in areas with poor sanitation. It attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Children under five are the most vulnerable, but polio can be prevented with vaccination.

Success in reducing case numbers worldwide has been largely due to intense national and regional immunisation campaigns in babies and children. Latest Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) figures show that worldwide, there were 33 cases of polio in 2018 and six so far in 2019 - 16 of them in Pakistan and 23 in Afghanistan. These two, plus Nigeria, are the last remaining countries where the disease is endemic.

Anti-polio drive kicks off in 97 districts of Pakistan

The GPEI, which includes the WHO, the Gates Foundation, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International and others, began its push to wipe out polio in 1988, when the disease was endemic in 125 countries and was paralysing almost 1,000 children a day worldwide.

Since then, there has been at least a 99 percent reduction in cases. “We’ve got to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to zero,” Gates said. “We need government donors to stay committed.”

The “only potential negative” in the region is instability in Afghanistan, Gates said, where Taliban leaders appear to have no single policy but “decide what they will and what they won’t allow” regarding polio vaccinations.

“That’s what we don’t have predictability or control over,” he said. “Sometimes they stop the campaigns from taking place. But the ideal is when they allow house-to-house (vaccine) delivery.”

Meanwhilw, a sub-national anti-polio vaccination campaign kicked off on Monday in 97 districts to vaccinate over 20 million children across the country.

The statement issued by National Emergency Operations said that during this special campaign, frontline polio workers will go door-to-door in 97 districts across the country to ensure that over 20 million children are vaccinated with two drops of vaccine to protect them against the polio virus.

It said since the beginning of the year, six cases of wild poliovirus have been detected in the country, which include cases from Karachi, Lahore, and districts Bajaur, Khyber, Hangu, and Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkwa.

During this vaccination campaign, a total of 5.59 million children below the age of five years will be administrated the polio vaccine in 25 districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including seven tribal districts.

In Sindh, the polio campaign will run in all towns of Karachi and in 20 districts of interior Sindh, where over 6.13 million children under five years of age will be administered polio vaccine.

In Punjab, the polio campaign will be administered in 12 districts, where more than 6.6 million children will be administered the polio vaccine. Similarly, in Balochistan, the vaccination activity will be launched in 21 districts, where approximately 1.77 million children will be given polio drops.  Islamabad will be implementing the polio campaign in all high risk areas targeting 0.24 million children.

Dr Rana Muhammad Safdar, Coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Centre for the Polio Programme, stressed the importance of civil society, religious scholars and media in promoting the norm of vaccination. “Parents should cooperate with polio workers and administer their children with anti-polio drops - which will ultimately help save them from a lifetime of disability,” he said.

He further explained that polio is caused by the poliovirus and the affected children can be paralysed for life. There is no cure for polio, but prevention through immunisation can reduce the chances of contracting the virus. Furthermore, multiple vaccinations are critical in safeguarding children from the virus.

According to Babar Bin Atta, Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication, “The country now has one of the best opportunities to stop transmission of the poliovirus. It is therefore high time that we all gear up to collectively fight the virus and provide support to our brave frontline workers so that they can reach and vaccinate every single Pakistani child.” He further added that, “challenges remain in fully eradicating the virus, however, the federal and provincial governments stay firmly committed to defeating the virus forever.”

He concluded his statement by saying, “I hope that all segments of society will come forward to support the programme during the final push against polio.”

Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by poliovirus mainly affecting children under the age of ten years. It invades the nervous system, and can cause paralysis or even death. While there is no cure for polio, vaccination is the most effective way to protect children from this crippling disease.

Each time a child under the age of five is vaccinated, their protection against the virus is increased. Repeated immunisations have protected millions of children from polio, allowing almost all countries in the world to become polio free.