As Pakistan’s COVID Curve Flattens, Healthcare Workers Shift Focus To Polio

With COVID-19 still threatening the lives of people all over the world, this week Pakistan made the difficult decision to continue to administer Polio vaccinations, with an ambitious goal of reaching 800,000 Pakistani children in under one week.

COVID-19 has affected Pakistan perhaps more severely than the other countries in the region: Al Jazeera reports more than 250,000 infections and just under 6,000 deaths, giving Pakistan a mortality rate of around 0.03%. According to Pakistani health officials fewer and fewer citizens are now seeking healthcare in relation to the virus, leading officials to believe that Pakistan is flattening its curve. Therefore, having just got the threat from COVID-19 under control, why is Pakistan choosing now to make the Polio immunization campaign a top government priority, rather than maintaining focus on COVID-19?

The answer to this question has many facets, the primary reason being that Pakistan is one of only two countries worldwide where Polio is still endemic and poses a significant threat to the population (the other being one of its neighbors, Afghanistan). The data on Polio in Pakistan has been changing in the wrong direction in recent years: according to the World Health Organization, in 2017 there were only eight registered new polio cases, and that number increased slightly to 12 in 2018. Then in 2019, the number of registered cases spiked to 147; a 1125% increase in the span of one calendar year. Now, in July 2020, the number of registered new cases is already approaching 60 and the year is only half over.

Much of the increase in the number of cases can be attributed to religious skepticism in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Reuters reports that a group of skeptics there published several videos showing young children coming down with an illness, claiming they had just received the Polio vaccine. These videos stated that the vaccine is unsafe and puts your child more at risk than if they were to not receive the vaccine at all. Essentially, this group launched a misinformation campaign to sway the public’s opinion, and has been successful in doing so. This explains why this region in particular has seen a sharp rise in numbers of Polio cases.

If misinformation were the only action being taken by these skeptics the problem could easily be tackled, through the launching of informative campaigns by such groups as UNICEF or the World Health Organization. However, things are not that simple: the same group of skeptics also executes physical attacks on healthcare workers looking to administer the vaccine. After conducting its own research Al Jazeera reported that 101 healthcare workers have been killed since 2012, because of their administration of the polio vaccine. Ten were killed in 2019, and three more have been killed so far in 2020. Beyond spreading skepticism these religious hardliners have been instilling fear in healthcare workers to deter them from coming into their neighborhoods to vaccinate their children, thus increasing the risk of the spread of Polio.

The disconnect is clear but the gap has yet to be bridged in effectively articulating how important the Polio vaccine is in ridding Pakistan of the easily prevented neurodegenerative disease. With the threat of violence ever-present, healthcare workers are now being accompanied by law enforcement officers in order to ensure their safety as they travel door-to-door administering the vaccine. The goal of 800,000 vaccinations is ambitious, but necessary if the goal is to flatten the Polio curve as well as the COVID curve. By wearing the proper garb to mitigate the spread of COVID while also having police presence to deter any attacks, this campaign to end polio in Pakistan is effectively tackling all the threats that have been thwarting plans in recent years.