I, too, am a Sehat Muhafiz - Op-Ed

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By Dr. Rana Muhammad Safdar

Three years ago when we were celebrating World Polio Day, almost 306 of our nation’s children had been crippled by the poliovirus in 2014. Today as we commemorate World Polio Day 2017, only five of our children have been paralyzed. We are extremely proud of this unprecedented, historic progress.

Despite these inspirational results, Pakistan remains one of only three countries in the world where this disease threatens children. As a nation we cannot let this continue. We need to stand up as one and say NO to polio. By the time our nation turns 71 next August, we should have a special gift ready for our future generations: a Polio Free Pakistan! This is our country’s goal and on World Polio Day I am asking every citizen to commit to a Pakistan where no child will ever again suffer from this disease.

Our recent and noteworthy success has been the result of hard and effective work of the hundreds of thousands of frontline workers who ensure that our children get their two drops of polio vaccine. I salute them! I equally salute the managers and administrators who plan, execute and monitor these vaccination teams to ensure that the drops reach every child under the age of five -- in every house and every community, from K2 mountain to Karachi. The teams have also benefited from the sacrifices of our valiant law enforcement agencies who stood with us when the need arose. We remain grateful to each and every one of them.

I am also proud of the communities and families who never fail to open their doors to Sehat Muhafiz teams to ensure that every child gets their two vaccine drops. This is the only way we can collectively ensure that we rid polio from our land.

Our data and research confirms that the vast majority of our people (more than 95 out of 100 times) support vaccinating their children against polio and report their child received drops during every campaign in the past year. A few of us (less than 1 in 100 times) still have doubts and misconceptions about the vaccine and block their children from their human right to be protected from polio.

Missing any child is the biggest obstacle that our programme faces today. For as long as one child remains unreached, the whole nation remains at risk. I solemnly call on fathers, mothers, and caregivers to ensure that each time a Sehat Muhafiz shows up at our doors and gates, please let them in to vaccinate. Before these measures were implemented, more than 20,000 children were crippled by this disease every year! That is not where we want to be! This is the risk we run if we do not collectively work to stop this disease during the next 10 months.

We are further challenged in a number of provinces where evidence from our vast sewerage sampling tells us the polio virus continues to be present and poses a risk to our children. We must be persistent, especially in all the districts in Karachi plus Quetta, Pishin, Killa Abdullah, and Chaman Tehsil districts and our twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. These are the final battle lines! We must also stay extremely vigilant in Khyber Peshawar and other parts of the country.

With sound research and detailed planning, we are working relentlessly to ensure the strategies in our annual emergency action plan are fully implemented. Our programme is able to quickly detect the polio virus and we are closing the remaining small gaps to reach every child. We are improving and validating microplans to ensure our teams don’t miss any pockets of children; registering and mapping high-risk mobile populations; and understanding community perceptions and aligning efforts of all potential influencers to ensure the vaccination of every child, every time.

We are proud to highlight that our doctors, religious scholars, cultural and tribal leaders have continuously assured us that the polio vaccine is safe. So to parents and caregivers who often ask me how many times a child can be vaccinated? I say comfortably there’s no limit to how many times you can receive it. When the poliovirus invades your child’s body, it paralyzes for life, and can even kill. There is no cure from this disease!

As we celebrate our achievements today, we must also constantly remind ourselves that this is a zero-sum game in which we must ensure not a single child is paralyzed from polio. This can only happen if we work collectively and strive to reach every child.

Over the next few of months, my team plans to conduct monthly campaigns as the last push to kick the poliovirus out of our country. This is the best opportunity we have had in decades to succeed and we must positively take it. Together we must operate with urgency!   

My countrymen and women, this is our moment to protect our children and our children’s children. When you see Sehat Muhafiz vaccinators outside your homes, welcome them to vaccinate every child. Thank them for making every child in our beautiful country safe from polo -- add to their sense of pride as they advance on their noble mission as I, too, am Sehat Muhafiz!