Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates visited Pakistan recently for the very first time. The purpose of the visit was to appraise Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts. Apart from meeting Pakistan’s President and the Prime Minister, Bill Gates also attended a meeting of the National Task Force for Polio Eradication. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been one of the key supporters of putting an end to polio-endemic. As no recorded Polio case has been reported by Pakistan since January 27th, 2021, hence ‘one-year to Polio-Free Pakistan is in fact a blow of fresh air that even during the COVID-19 pandemic and a health emergency worldwide, Pakistan managed to regulate its polio vaccination campaign.
Despite all odds, children all across Pakistan received polio vaccination throughout the year 2021.
Last year’s World Polio Day, as celebrated in Pakistan and Afghanistan, was an indication towards the possibility of reaching a polio-free future. Since Pakistan and Afghanistan share a region where polio has been endemic over the decades, last year’s World Polio Day (October 24) was important for both countries because both recorded only one case of wild polio each. This was a big step ahead compared to the numbers in 2020. Gates also noted that vaccination rates in Afghanistan have gone up during the recent months after dropping off for more than three years. While reflecting on the Polio eradication efforts since the Taliban ascension to power in Afghanistan since August 2021, he said, “There is more vaccination taking place in Afghanistan now than for the last three years.… But it’s still not as high as it should be, and so there’s work to be done in terms of understanding how we support them.” In short, 2021 recorded the lowest number of polio cases in the only region in the world that has not yet been declared polio-free.
Bill Gates rightly pointed out, the 2022 polio vaccination campaign will be a key in taking us closer to complete eradication.
Speaking of some of the challenges, it is of importance to note that although Pakistan and Afghanistan are separate countries, they make up one epidemiological bloc. Besides, being close neighbors and the existent migrant groups’ back and forth movement across the border – a spike in polio cases in one country will deteriorate the situation for the other. Pakistan’s polio eradication program has been rigorous but with Afghanistan adjusting to a new regime and post-war rebuilding, the scope of Pakistan’s efforts require expansion. Pakistan sure has much expertise to offer to Afghanistan in terms of running an effective polio eradication program. For the progress to sustain and not crumble to point zero, collaboration and cooperation between the two neighbors is more than essential.
Certainly, the challenges in Afghanistan are manifolds complicated than what Pakistan’s polio campaign has been through. However, this day in Pakistan stands as living proof that it is possible to overcome challenges and to make polio eradication a success. Pakistan has also seen deliberate killings and attacks on its polio workers but in the end, consistency and dedicated effort triumphed. With more than 22.4 million children receiving polio vaccines in 70 districts as of February 2, 2022, Pakistan’s dedication to working till it is declared a polio-free zone is evident.