Unbeaten Enemy: The Mysterious Resilience of Poliovirus in Pakistan

Pakistan, along with Afghanistan, remains one of the last two countries where poliovirus is still classified as an endemic viral infection.

Pakistan, along with Afghanistan, remains one of the last two countries where poliovirus is still classified as an endemic viral infection.

Ever wondered how we conquer those sneaky viruses causing big outbreaks? Picture this: vaccination, our superhero shield, joining forces with preventive steps, fighting off these troublemakers. Vaccination is the administration of vaccine! Think of it as a special potion which is a biological preparation to acquire immunity against infectious and malignant diseases lurking around us.

Diseases spread in Pakistan like a wildfire due to a mix of factors such as poor adherence to hygiene, preventive measures, feeble healthcare system, and packed living spaces. But amidst this, vaccination is the guardian shield standing tall against diseases we can easily dodge.

Poliovirus is a contagious disease which causes life-long disability. Poliovirus mostly attacks kids under 5. Shockingly, 1 out of 200 cases can cause permanent paralysis and here’s the scary part: of those paralyzed, 5 to 10 out of 100 could die because their respiratory muscles stop working.

It’s a serious threat, especially for young ones. Since 1988, the world has witnessed an incredible 99% drop in poliovirus cases, bringing us close to wiping it out entirely. But here’s the startling twist: while it’s been eliminated almost everywhere, Pakistan and Afghanistan are still wrestling with it. And the big reason behind this lingering threat? “Vaccination hesitancy”.

Back in April 2019, Pakistan was on the brink of being declared a “Polio-free Nation.” But then, something unexpected happened, rumors started swirling that the poliovirus vaccine itself was causing polio in children from Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This shattered hopes and halted all the hard work toward eradicating polio. Campaigns came to a standstill.

Ever since, distrust has brewed among parents, making them hesitant about vaccinating their children for safety. This hesitation has led to increase in the cases of poliovirus. COVID-19 didn’t help either; it put a damper on activities to eradicate out poliovirus. Plus, areas which were reservoir of poliovirus haven’t been reached as much, adding to the rise in cases.

In addition to anti-polio campaigns, misconception is also a crucial factor leading to low immunization levels. Blame it on social media! It’s the root of all the wild conspiracies, and sadly, Pakistanis are more prone to falling for these stories. People in Pakistan tend to believe things easily, especially if a famous figure says it, without really checking the facts behind it. This has seriously hampered many Polio Vaccination Programs.

Central Pakistan, mainly Karachi, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are hotspots for Poliovirus infection. Ever since the Peshawar incident, the Polio Eradication Program leaders shifted the paradigm of program to identify the reasons behind the high reluctancy and low coverage. A study was conducted where parents of persistently missed children (PMC) from high-risk areas of Karachi were interviewed.

After in-depth research, it became clear: the reasons for polio vaccine refusal vary widely. From a lack of awareness about the virus to myths about the vaccine causing sterility in men, negative social media narratives, safety worries, and distrust in government facilities and workers—all contribute to this complex resistance. However, the main reason is the rumor that Polio vaccine is Western conspiracy to spread HIV and infertility among Muslims.

Because of these factors people are rigorously resistant towards vaccination which resulted in catastrophic consequences for poliovirus containment efforts. The surge in poliovirus cases in Pakistan is alarming: escalating sharply from just 12 cases in 2018 to a staggering 146 cases in 2019.

Hence, there’s a risk that more children would get infected in the nearby areas, resulting in peak of cases. When people hesitate to get the polio vaccine, it leaves the door open for the virus to spread, putting more kids at risk of paralysis. The absence of the polio vaccine in any child’s life casts a shadow over the worldwide efforts for eradication, haunting the very hope of global immunity.

In the quest to secure our future, the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme has waged a relentless battle against the crippling poliovirus since 1994. Thanks to unwavering dedication and robust vaccination drives, the reported cases have plummeted to just 1 by mid-2023, marking a remarkable drop from the previous year. Yet, the journey ahead remains extensive.

The collaboration between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) stands as a beacon of support for countries combating the Poliovirus. The foundation’s approach involves not only financial aid but also a strategic incentive system, encouraging governments to meet specific targets in exchange for support.

It’s a multifaceted strategy aimed at combating Polio on multiple fronts. For instance, their efforts include funding vaccine research and setting up emergency operations centers in pivotal locations like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Their contributions have yielded remarkable milestones.

Thanks to their interventions, the WHO African Region received certification as officially free of wild poliovirus in August 2020. Nigeria, the last country in Africa where wild polio was endemic, marked its last case in 2016—a testament to the impact of their initiatives.

The Government of Pakistan, in tandem with various global bodies like UNICEF, is actively engaged in a sophisticated effort. Their goal: analyzing the current scenario, dispelling misconceptions, easing fears, and promoting widespread acceptance of vaccination. It’s a collaborative push to pave the way for a polio-free future.

In an age of viral misinformation, the battle against polio’s shadow looms larger than ever. Beware the alluring trap of social media—where truth and falsehood intertwine. Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter weave a web of deception through misleading memes, fabricated news, and recycled images cloaked as fresh evidence. It’s time to awaken to the perilous dance of misinformation.

Experts should check information, and doctors should speak out against false claims. Authorities must wield the sword of swift action against this rampant falsity, but the responsibility isn’t theirs alone. We must band together, rallying against the tide of misleading narratives.

Speak of the poliovirus and its ruthless consequences, for understanding is our shield against manipulation. Let not the allure of a share or a retweet blind us to the real danger lurking in the digital shadows. If we team up like this, we can fight against the wrong beliefs and make sure more people support polio vaccines to keep everyone safe.