Saturday May 25, 2019

Detection of a rare strain of Polio in Pakistan’s Balochistan alarms authorities

A five-day response campaign across the provincial capital of Quetta has started in January

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FILE - A Pakistani health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec. 1, 2016. Polio remains endemic in Pakistan after the Taliban banned vaccinations, instigated attacks targeting medical staffers and spread suspicions about the vaccine. VOA

Detection of a rare strain of polio in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province has alarmed authorities and prompted them to launch special immunisation campaigns for children younger than 5.

After concluding a five-day response campaign across the provincial capital of Quetta earlier this month, health officials said they plan to give anti-polio drops starting January 16 to millions of children across 27 districts of the province, including those near the Afghan border.

The new, intensified immunization effort follows detection of the rare Type 2 strain of polio, which the World Health Organization found in sewage samples in one of the districts in the province.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only three countries in the world where the crippling virus is still active.

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Remarkable progress

Despite security challenges and administrative weaknesses in national immunization efforts, Pakistan’s anti-polio fight achieved remarkable progress in 2015 when the country of about 200 million reported only 19 cases, down from a record of 309 cases in 2014.

Aftab Kakar of the provincial emergency operation center in Quetta says that Type 2 polio struck about 15 children three years ago in the Killa Abdullah district toward the Afghan border.

But routine immunization campaigns coupled with special response efforts at the time stopped the transmission of the virus until WHO’s findings released a couple of weeks ago confirmed its re-emergence in Baluchistan, where only one polio case was reported in 2016, Kakar said.

“The international community has shown its concern over the detection of this (Type 2) virus in Pakistan because the rest of the world has eliminated it and reported no new cases for years,” he noted.

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Type 2 virus

Pakistan stopped vaccinating children against the Type 2 polio during routine immunization campaigns since last April, believing the strain had been successfully eliminated from the country as in the rest of the world, Kakar said.

“Now, our major concern and fear is that the group of children who were born after April 2016 are not immunized against Type 2 poliovirus. That group is now vulnerable and is in danger of contracting the virus,” he warned.

On Wednesday, provincial health officials reported the first polio case of the new year in Killa Abdullah, but the strain of the virus was not known immediately.

Border campaign

Baluchistan shares a nearly 1,200-kilometer border with Afghanistan and as many as 20,000 people move across the main Chaman border crossing everyday, where special vaccinating teams are deployed to ensure children moving in both directions are given anti-polio drops.

Col. Changez Zeb, in charge of Pakistani border forces, explained the anti-polio operation to VOA during a visit to the busy crossing point.

“This is the sign of the polio vaccination,” he said while pointing to the inked fingers of three young Afghan children driven in an improvised cart by their parents after receiving the medicine. “The polio team has given them the vaccination while entering and while exiting from Pakistan. They have three to four teams here. If one of them misses (the children) the other one catches them.”

Pakistani authorities insist that successes against polio is the outcome of national immunization efforts coupled with recruiting hundreds of thousands of influential Muslim clerics to persuade parents in remote, relatively conservative districts who used to resist the vaccination drops for their children because of religious beliefs or suspicions it would hurt fertility.

The refusals and militant threats to vaccinating teams undermined anti-polio drives in recent years. But Kakar says that refusals have lately dropped from thousands to hundreds, while improved security in Baluchistan has also played a key role in conducting effective immunization campaigns.

Extremist groups view anti-polio campaigns as a cover for Western spies, prompting deadly attacks on vaccinators during immunization campaigns across Pakistan. A bomb explosion in January 2016 killed 15 people outside a vaccination center in Quetta. The anti-state Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the bloodshed.

Opposition is also blamed on a fake CIA-sponsored immunization campaign that led to the famous May 2011 covert American military raid against fugitive al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, killing the world’s most wanted man. (VOA)

Next Story

Vaccine Doubts Spread Across Social Media Like Disease, Should be Taken Down: Vaccine Chief

"We have to think about it as a disease. This is a disease," Berkley said. "This spreads at the speed of light, literally"

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FILE - A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella virus (MMR) vaccine is pictured at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S. VOA

Doubts about vaccines have spread across social media like a disease and false information that “kills people” should be taken down by the companies running digital platforms, the head of global vaccine alliance Gavi said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a U.S.-sponsored event on the sidelines of the World Health Organization’s annual assembly in Geneva, Gavi CEO Seth Berkley said there was a strong scientific consensus about the safety of vaccines.

But social media algorithms favored sensational content over scientific facts, rapidly convincing people who had never seen family members die from preventable illness.

“We have to think about it as a disease. This is a disease,” Berkley said. “This spreads at the speed of light, literally.”

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“A study says @Autism is out of control — a 78% increase in 10 years. Stop giving monstrous combined vaccinations,” Trump tweeted in 2012. Pixabay

WHO says poor vaccination coverage is causing measles outbreaks globally, with numbers spiking in countries that were previously almost free of the disease, including the United States.

Misinformation about vaccines, which the WHO says save two million lives annually, was not a freedom of speech issue and social media firms need to take it offline, Berkley said. “I remind people that this kills people,” he said.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said complacency, misunderstanding and misinformation were causing vaccination rates to decline globally, with tragic results.

“In my country, social media conspiracy groups confuse well-meaning parents so they hesitate to get the recommended vaccinations,” Azar said.

He rejected any criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump, who repeatedly and erroneously tweeted about links between vaccines and autism in the years before he became president.

“A study says @Autism is out of control — a 78% increase in 10 years. Stop giving monstrous combined vaccinations,” Trump tweeted in 2012.

vaccine
Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said health authorities needed to “up our game,” adding that she was working with Twitter, Facebook, Google and other tech companies. Pixabay

Azar said Trump was “extremely firm” in support of vaccination.

“If you had been paying attention in the last month, you would know that the President of the United States, President Trump, was very clear and emphatic: get your shots, get your kids vaccinated, vaccines are safe,” Azar said.

ALSO READ: WHO to Strengthen Strategies to Combat Ebola Epidemic in Congo

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said health authorities needed to “up our game,” adding that she was working with Twitter, Facebook, Google and other tech companies.

“You’ve got to get into the trenches … and begin to get engaged much more on a personal and emotional level, because people don’t understand statistics and data. If you do that. (VOA)