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Eradication of polio in KP still a far cry

PESHAWAR, Dec 3: Lack of coordination between the government and United Nations Children Fund (Unicef) is major obstacle to eradication of polio in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to sources.

They said that since launch of the anti-polio programme in 1994, Unicef was required to lend support to the government in eradicating polio through mass immunisation of the children below five years. They said that efforts to create demand for oral polio vaccine through social mobilisation didn`t produce the desired results as more parents started refusing vaccination of their children in the province.

`Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has recorded 10 of the total 70 nationwide polio cases in 2013 so far. The cases are less than 26, the province had recorded in 2012, but chronic refusals pose serious threats to our efforts,` relevant officials told Dawn.

They said that they couldn`t eradicate polio as long as virus remained in circulation in the province. Fata has recorded 48, Punjab seven and Sindh five polio cases in the current year.

The officials said that top five communication officers at the polio section of Unicef were foreigners, who were supposed to design mobilisation strategies for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata besides other parts of the country. `We need to address the problem in local context through local people and not through foreign citizens,` they said.

The officials said that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded 28,731 refusal cases in the three-day campaign from Nov 18 to Nov 20 out of the 21,859 children, who remained un-immunised in the October vaccination drive.

The officials associated with campaigns in many districts said that Unicef spent money on recruitment of staff and mobilisation activities to ensure immunisation but the efforts didn`t bear fruit owing to lack of coordination with the health department.

`Health department is required to implement polio vaccination plan and get support of Unicef in the area of advocacy to do away with prevalent misconception that the vaccine render the recipients infertile,` they said.

Doctors in one of the high-risk districts told Dawn that there was no accountability of employees in Unicef while the health department took strict disciplinary action against those officials, who showed laxity in the polio campaign.

`Many district health officers, doctors and vaccinators have been suspended on the complaints but we saw no action when the director-general health complained about underperformance of the COMNet officers in mobilisation activities in the province,` they said.

Sources said that health department was not taken into confidence in recruitment of COMNet officers, who were supposed to work under it. Instead of addressing the provincial government`s complaints regarding recruitment of COMNet staff without the consultation of district health officers, Unicef continued further recruitments without bothering to address the department`s concern, they added.

One of the district health officers said that poor mobilisation campaign caused increase in refusal cases in new districts like Mardan where more than 8,000 children remained unvaccinated in the November drive. `New challenges are emerging due to nonexistence of a coordinated mobilisation strategy to cope with refusals. We are vaccinating over five million children with the help of 32,000 workers but our efforts are useless in presence of a single case of refusal,` he said.

Sources said that children in Pakistan, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa would suffer because of the soaring refusals against polio. The WHO has declared the province as`polio reservoir` that puts children at risk beyond Pakistan.

Unicef spokesman Azmat Abbas, when contacted, told Dawn that they were collecting data of the November campaign and were therefore not in a position to comment on the refusals.

`The recent campaign was staggered in nature and data is still being received from several districts. We will be in a better position to respond to reasons of refusals once complete data is compiled,` he said. -Bureau Report