Thousands Left Unvaccinated: Polio Drives Halted by ‘Flimsy’ Demands

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PESHAWAR: As Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has stayed polio-free this year so far, experts associated with vaccination campaigns are frustrated with new reasons for the refusal of parents against the immunization of children, exposing them to poliomyelitis, a crippling childhood ailment.

During the last two anti-polio campaigns conducted in April and June, about 21,459 children remained unvaccinated due to flimsy demands of people in exchange for allowing immunization of their children.

According to a report prepared by the Emergency Operation Centre (Polio) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 11,716 children didn’t get the oral polio vaccine (OPV) in the April’s campaign owing to different demands put forward by community elders for immunization of children in their areas. These children belonged to 15 union councils in Khyber, Kurram, Lakki Marwat, North Waziristan, and Lower South Waziristan districts.

The demands included the resolution of boundary disputes among people, royalty of natural resources, payment of checks to affected people under the Citizens Losses Compensation Programme, initiation of water supply schemes, and others.

In June, the situation was no different, as parents demanded the provision of electricity and water, etc for administering anti-polio drops to their children.

Resultantly, 9,743 children in three union councils of the Bannu, Kurram, and Lakki Marwat districts remained unvaccinated.

Along with these demands put forward by parents and community elders, vaccinators continue to confront violent attacks by unidentified armed persons. During the past two vaccination drives, 10 incidents of violence took place that caused four deaths, including two policemen, one vaccinator, and a passerby, and left three policemen injured.

Experts say that the killing of people during the polio drive continues unabated. Since 2012, they said, 113 people have been killed in such attacks while the tally of people suffering injuries was 165 in the same period.

They said police guarding vaccinators accounted for most deaths and injuries while about 15 persons were kidnapped allegedly by the people, who opposed vaccination on various pretexts.

In late January 2024, the worst of the incident was witnessed in Bajaur district when a medical doctor along with six policemen was killed in a roadside blast during a vaccination campaign.

Experts lament that people are putting forward new requests for immunization of their children due to which the crippling disease cannot be eradicated despite the fact that the province has reached close to eradication of polio many years ago. The province has about 7.4 million target children under five years and in each drive, only a few thousand stay unvaccinated, which puts the immunized ones at risk.

They say that people are resorting to new demands to accept polio vaccination.

“It is hampering the eradication efforts, they said. At the start of the campaign, parents showed hesitancy to polio vaccination under the misconception that the drops were designed by Western countries to render the recipients infertile and cut down the population of Muslims, they added”.

Experts said that another argument for not vaccinating their children was that vaccination was disallowed in Islam before the occurrence of any disease. This argument has been nullified by edicts issued by top religious scholars and institutions, they added.

However, as time passes people come up with fresh demands even though it is a government program and such issues are of administrative nature. The government should tackle the demand-based refusals administratively, otherwise, the vicious cycle would continue and the province would produce more disabled people, they said.

In 2019, Peshawar saw a major crisis when hundreds of children were rushed to hospitals for an alleged reaction to polio vaccination. The children were soon discharged from hospitals after doctors said that there was no reaction but they got terrified. After that incident, refusals in Peshawar soared. The perpetrators of that incident escaped action. So such matters should be dealt with administratively, said experts.

Acknowledgement: Published in Dawn News on 8th July 2024.

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