India, Pakistan: Cross-border cooperation against polio. “Failure is not an option”

‘Bowl out polio’: Pakistani cricketers Younis Khan and Imran Farhat give polio drops to a child at a UNICEF event in New Delhi, Jan 2013. Photo: PTI

‘Bowl out polio’: Pakistani cricketers Younis Khan and Imran Farhat give polio drops to a child at a UNICEF event in New Delhi, Jan 2013. Photo: PTI

Here’s something I wrote for Aman ki Asha recently, published in the June 5, 2013 edition:

India and Pakistan are working together against a common enemy. Pakistan’s new government must take up the baton

By Beena Sarwar

Over the past year, Pakistan has been studying how India dramatically eradicated polio, with the World Health Organisation striking it off its list of polio endemic countries in February 2012; the last case was recorded in January 2011.

India’s dramatic success against polio. Courtesy CDC

India’s dramatic success against polio. Courtesy CDC

Responding to Pakistan’s need, India has offered to help its neighbour to achieve the goal of eradicating polio. Cooperating against this crippling disease that knows no borders is a no-brainer As long as polio exists in even one country in the world others remain at risk and children will continue to be crippled or die from an entirely preventable disease.

Pakistan is one of the world’s three remaining polio endemic countries along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The formal cooperation between India and Pakistan began in June 2012 when a nine-member government delegation led by Shahnaz Wazir Ali, then the Pakistan Prime Minister’s national focal person on polio eradication, visited India. The delegation included the District Commissioners of Pakistan’s high-risk districts for polio as well as President Zardari’s sister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho, a member of the national task force on polio.

Shehnaz Wazir Ali (right) with cricket hero Shahid Afridi and Aziz Memon of Rotary Pakistan

Shehnaz Wazir Ali (right) with cricket hero Shahid Afridi and Aziz Memon of Rotary Pakistan

“They studied the structure of India’s anti-polio campaign including door-to-door visits, and made field visits,” said the head of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Hamid Jafari of the Center for Disease Control.

India’s surveillance and monitoring system produce real time data that tracks children whom vaccinators have missed, in order to follow up and give them polio drops.

“That was the first time that there was a formal visit by a Pakistan government delegation to India for this purpose,” says Dr Jafari, speaking to Aman ki Asha over the phone from his office in Geneva. “Polio eradication experts had met before at international meetings and monitored each other’s programmes, but this was their first ever bilateral field visit.”

Dr Jafari worked in India from August 2006 to June 2012, leading the National Polio Surveillance Project. He was the main technical advisor to the Government of India for polio eradication and other immunisation programmes and directed the WHO’s extensive network of nearly 1000 field staff, including more than 300 surveillance medical officers.

Children at a polio awareness walk in Faisalabad. Photo: courtesy Rotary

Children at a polio awareness walk in Faisalabad. Photo: courtesy Rotary

The Pakistan government delegation on its visit last year met with India’s health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad and invited him to visit Pakistan. Delegation leader Shahnaz Wazir Ali further called for regular exchanges between polio expert groups from India and Pakistan. These are offers the new government in Pakistan must follow up on.

Pakistan has adopted best-practice modules from India like identifying high-risk areas, involving religious leaders in door-to-door campaigns, conducting health camps, obtaining celebrity endorsements including from sports heroes, and producing social mobilisation materials for information, education and communication on polio.

Aziz Memon: “Failure is not an option”

Aziz Memon: “Failure is not an option”

Rotary International is also actively taking these moves forward. Rotary’s Pakistan National Polio Plus team recently visited India, led by Committee Chairman Aziz Memon, to study India’s success in eradicating polio, particularly the campaigns in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where 741 polio cases had surfaced in 2009. Subsequently, India’s use of bivalent vaccines targeting Polio 1 and Polio 3 from January 2010 onwards was hugely successful.

“Concerted and sustained efforts on the part of all stakeholders, public and private entities, partnerships and the public, for polio to be finally eradicated from Pakistan are essential,” says Aziz Memon. “Failure to do so will leave open the perennial threat of wild poliovirus making a surreptitious comeback in other geographies too; that is something Pakistan, and the world, can ill afford at this crucial juncture.” (2012 interview)

Rotary aims to not only make India polio-free, but eradicate polio from the world, asserts Ashok Mahajan, former Director of Rotary International and chairperson of Rotary International’s Muslim Ulema Committee, formed in 2007. With neighbouring Pakistan still endemic to polio, “if the virus comes to India, it will be a disaster,” he says (Indian Express report, June 1, 2013).

Through Rotary International’s India National Polio Plus Committee, Muslim Ulema from Uttar Pradesh have offered to visit Pakistan to convince people and advocate polio vaccination.

Shahid Afridi’s Pashto poster: Vaccinate every child under 5 every time there is a vaccination drive

Shahid Afridi’s Pashto poster: Vaccinate every child under 5 every time there is a vaccination drive

“The problem in Pakistan regarding misconceptions about polio vaccines is similar to that of India. Since we have been successful in convincing Muslims here, we can replicate the model in Pakistan,” says Maulana Khalid Rasheed Farangi Mahali, President of the Ulama Council of India, and an executive member of the Rotary’s Ulema Committee.

The Committee involves prominent Muslim religious leaders from different sects to advocate polio vaccination, including during Friday prayers and other religious congregations. This successful engagement has contributed greatly to awareness about polio and countering myths about the polio vaccine in India.

Leading Pakistan towards similar success will earn the new elected government a special place in history.

— Beena Sarwar

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One Response

  1. […] In 2012, India was declared polio-free – a country that had appeared to have no hope of emerging from its polio-endemic status given the size of its population and large pockets of vulnerable populations. […]

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