By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Once upon a time Pakistan had earned international recognition for successfully conducting polio eradication campaign painstakingly against heaviest of odds and challenges. The credit for its success was entirely due to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s personal commitment as manifested in the fact that she launched the anti-polio drive by holding her infant daughter in public and administering in her mouth polio drops.
In Pakistan never before such an attempt was made to immunise the youth from the crippling affliction. And such outlandish approach by Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was multi-faceted. A vast population in the tribal north and also in rest of the country believed that polio drops were not preventive but an international conspiracy to castrate male Muslim population from procreative activity. The campaign against polio drops waged as a jihad by the clergy was as bad and as effective as was once the campaign against American wheat when there were famine conditions in Pakistan during President Ayub Khan’s initial days. Shiploads of American wheat stood at Karachi Port to be unloaded but there was no effort to get it off the ships as the mullahs had fatwaed its consumption.
In the midst of various issues such as whether to let former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif go abroad for treatment to his complicated medical condition or how to deal with Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Grand March on the federal capital demanding nothing less than Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resignation to be followed by elections within three months under an independent election commission.
In the midst of multi conflicted issues occupying the mind, a conspiracy most foul and criminally detrimental to the health and well being of the nation was quietly pushed under the rug to save the government from the rage of the masses. It relates to sudden surfacing of polio virus and crippling of scores of children. And that too entirely due to the fact that the man made in charge of anti-polio drive by Prime Minister Imran Khan by his criminal negligence and corruption allowed expired vaccines to be administered on infants leading them to be disabled for life.
The virus P2 strain had previously been eliminated from the country. However, the new cases were allegedly kept hidden from the government and from international donors, including the UK’s Department for International Development, under direct instruction from Babar Bin Atta, the prime minister’s focal representative on polio eradication, who was last month forced to resign after he was accused of corruption. DfID has donated millions to Pakistan’s polio eradication programme. The alleged cases, which have all resulted in paralysis, have been discovered mainly in Diamer district, with one in the capital, Islamabad.
It is known that under Pakistani law, every new case of polio in the country has to be officially registered with the government, which then alerts international health bodies. “But to hide their negligence and their poor performance, Babar Bin Atta decided not to disclose the cases to anyone,” said the source.
‘The re-emergence of P2 is not only be a dramatic step back in Pakistan’s fight against the polio, it would also be symptomatic of what those in the programme have described as “terrible mismanagement” under Bin Atta.’ It may be mentioned here that Pakistan had in 2014 officially declared it had entirely eradicated P2 polio.
Polio exists in three different strands, P1, P2, and P3, with P2 notorious as the most contagious and most vicious in its impact on those infected. According to the source within the programme, the renewed outbreak of the P2 strand came from a mismanagement of vaccines, which carry a live strain of the disease to create immunity.
After the strand was eliminated from Pakistan five years ago, all P2 vaccines should have been collected from hospitals and clinics and not used thereafter. However, it appears a P2 vaccine was administered accidentally and a child became a carrier for the disease. Tests on the new cases allegedly show the children are all carrying a vaccine-derived form of the disease .
‘Somewhere, somebody has inaccurately used this vaccine and because of this negligence … this virus was brought back into the environment and our children are again getting infected with P2,” alleged the source.
Instead of arresting Babar Bin Ata and treating him as a criminal to the nation PTI government has allowed him to remain Scot free and enjoy his ill gotten wealth. However, it is good to know that Minister of State for Heath Mirza has brought back PMLN appointee Dr Rana Safdar as Chief Co-ordinator Anti Polio Eradication programme. Dr Safdar is known to have successfully led anti polio drive in 2014.
(The writer is former High Commissioner of Pakistan to UK and a veteran journalist.)