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Pakistan’s Winnable War on Polio

LAHORE – I grew up in Pakistan throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, and my parents, like parents everywhere, wanted me to be fit and healthy and to get the best start in life. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a middle-class family with good sanitation facilities and clean water. I was also given vaccines to prevent life-threatening infections such as polio and measles.

But I remember the many children in my neighborhood who were not vaccinated. Those early experiences of children I knew contracting disease, especially the poliovirus that is so visibly impairing, shaped my views on the immense value of good health and the power of vaccines.

I live in London now, but my roots will always be in Pakistan. As head of the British Pakistan Foundation, I help philanthropists from the Pakistani diaspora invest in sustainable and effective social development projects. Over the last few weeks, I have been in my hometown of Lahore, the country’s second-largest city, discussing everything from the upcoming elections to everyday life challenges. Last week, I visited an orphanage on the outskirts of the city, set up after the 2005 earthquake that killed an estimated 75,000 people. I was impressed and encouraged that roughly four-fifths of the 85 children were fully vaccinated.

National statistics on immunization back up the positive signs that I saw. In 1994, Pakistan had roughly 25,000 cases of polio, many resulting in death or permanent disability. But, thanks to intensive vaccination campaigns, there were only 58 cases of polio in the entire country last year – down 70% from 2011. And the government and international health officials have agreed on a plan to stop polio transmission in Pakistan completely by the end of 2014 – a historic accomplishment that would be a huge source of national pride.

The main driver of Pakistan’s dramatic reduction in polio cases over the last two decades has been leadership at all levels. In 1994, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto launched the first national vaccination drive by inoculating her baby daughter, Aseefa. Nineteen years later, Aseefa is Pakistan’s Goodwill Ambassador on Polio Eradication and a powerful advocate of completing her mother’s dream of a polio-free country. International public-private partnerships and an army of vaccinators are working on the frontlines to protect every last child. Collectively, we are helping children and communities once considered unreachable.

With the recent progress on polio, Pakistan has a blueprint for future public-health interventions. In fact, we are already seeing the new framework take shape. For example, vitamin A drops – which provide infants with an essential micronutrient for vision and healthy growth – are now delivered twice yearly in conjunction with polio vaccines. Moreover, last year Pakistan became the first country in the region to introduce the latest vaccine to protect children against pneumonia. With pneumonia accounting for a shockingly high 20% of child deaths each year in Pakistan, widespread access to the new vaccine should have a major impact.

Major challenges remain. According to UNICEF, Pakistan has the second-highest rate of child mortality in South Asia. There is an important debate taking place in our country about how best to organize the health-care system so that it is accountable for serving the poorest and most marginalized communities. The size of the challenges that we face was made clear at the beginning of this year, when a measles outbreak killed more than 300 children in Pakistan – most of whom had not received vaccines. Just this month, we learned the tragic news that a guard accompanying health workers was killed during an immunization drive.

But we will not be deterred. Those who advocate violence are a minority in Pakistan, and will not stand in the way of our people’s betterment. With the upcoming elections, we have a valuable opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to vaccines by strengthening national leadership on health and increasing investment in the health-care system. And, as I heard from the guardians at the orphanage, educating communities about the value of vaccines and mobilizing their support is critical for reaching every last child.

The cooperation of the Pakistani diaspora movement and international donors like the Islamic Development Bank (which in March signed a financing package of $227 million to fight polio in Pakistan), together with the vaccinators’ determination to reach all of the country’s children, is inspirational. It is also changing lives for the better. With continued support for vital vaccines from Pakistan’s government and people, I am hopeful that the next time I return home, there will be even more reasons to be optimistic about our children’s future.

Suniya Qureshi is Executive Director of the British Pakistan Foundation.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.

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