The Virus is Coming Back

Political transition and mass misinformation campaigns have
contributed to growing polio rates in Pakistan.

By Asma Nisar | March 2020

Thanks to the global polio eradication program initiated in 1988, the number of reported polio cases has reduced by 99%, globally. Regions like the Americas, the western Pacific, Europe and South East Asia have long been declared polio-free. However, there are a few unfortunate countries where the polio virus still haunts the health of millions of children. These countries include Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. According to the World Health Organization, every child is at the risk of polio in the presence of a single polio infected child in the world. The report further laments that the failure of the global polio eradication program in the virus-prone states can result in 200,000 new cases every year globally.

t by the National Institute of Health, 104 new polio cases were reported in 2019 compared to only twelve in 2018. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province of Pakistan leads the number of reported polio cases with 75 cases in the province. Other provinces follow - 6 in Punjab, 16 in Sindh and 7 in Balochistan. Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir region data has showed no new cases of polio in 2019. In spite of Pakistan’s substantial progress since 2014, an independent monitoring board which supervises polio eradication programs worldwide has recently declared Pakistan’s polio eradication program as a ‘disaster’ and, with the present data, it is clear that there is something seriously wrong with the program.

Pakistan’s endeavours to eliminate the endemic face multiple impediments, including cultural taboos, security concerns, abrupt political transitions, volatile borders, and false propaganda about the polio vaccine such as myths of a Western conspiracy to sterilize the Muslims.

According to the experts monitoring the polio program in Pakistan, culture is one of the biggest hurdles in the eradication of polio in the country. The trend of establishing illegal settlements without prior planning further adds to the spread of the polio endemic. Settlements lacking basic sanitation and drinking water facilities increase the probability of spread of polio. There are hundreds of slums in Karachi - the largest metropolitan city in Pakistan where drains are full of raw sewage. Similarly, the virus has been isolated from sewage of other urban centres. In addition, the conventional mindset of the masses, especially in the rural areas, raises doubts about the nature of polio vaccines and hence the spread of polio across the country.

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The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance writer and a socio-economic analyst. She can be reached at

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