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Rethinking anti-polio strategy

It has been emphasised several times that Pakistan is in the midst of a polio epidemic. The country is one of the last bastions of polio on the planet, and rather than given millions of children a fighting chance against the paralyzing disease, the anti-polio programme is witnessing political disinterest and neglect.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative – a global body led by national government and partners – has released a damning report that anti-polio campaign is charaterised as dysfunctional teamwork and the absence of political unity. The resurgence of polio began in 2018 and intensified last year, which saw 144 cases. There have been 17 cases already this year as nearly one-third of children miss out on vaccines due to misconception and archaic mindsets.

An independent assessment of the anti-polio campaign on the dysfunctional teamwork states that the blame is often shifted and deflected. During the last year, there have been deteriorated relationships, in-fighting, silo-based working in which cross-functional processes are not understood or controlled, while team behaviour is constantly driven by fear of failure. There is insufficient collaboration and consultation on future initiatives and the programme is not functioning as one single unit.

During his recent visit to Pakistan, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said polio eradication is one the top priority. The UN chief stopped a kindergarten in Lahore as Pakistan kicked off a new polio drive to vaccinate over 39 million children. He said that polio is one of the few diseases we can eliminate in the next few years. He appealed to political, religious, and community leaders to support the government in eradicating polio. He also commended the brave polio workers – mostly women – who are working despite all odds and threat to stamp out polio.

Despite the support, there can be no tangible results if there no political will. This resurgence has taken place during the PTI government which should ensure that the polio programme is back on track. There needs to be synergy and coordination among the polio eradication team to work together as one force in pursuit of a greater cause. All key stakeholders need to be summoned to brainstorm on the strategy and make drastic changes or else the polio programme is destined to fail.

Pakistan’s polio-eradication programme needs to re-strategise it operation and approach to better respond to the rising cases. This requires high-level political commitment and it’s high time the government re-thinks its entire strategy to rid the nation of the disease. Prime Minister Imran Khan has shown strong and committed leadership and should now lead the polio programme as a foremost priority.

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