Photo courtesy of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
The cold-blooded murder of eight vaccination workers in Pakistan this week was a well-planned attack – four of the volunteers were shot within 20 minutes in various parts of Karachi, the country’s largest city.
The killings took place during a nationwide campaign to vaccinate 5.2 million children against poliomyelitis (polio), a virus that can cause lifelong paralysis or death. In addition, two polio vaccinators were killed in neighbouring Afghanistan last week in separate incidents.
Smallpox is the only human disease that we have eradicated from the world but we stand tantalisingly close to making polio the second. In 1988, polio infection paralysed or killed 350,000 people, mainly children. Following a global eradication initiative, that number had fallen to 650 in 2011; this year, just 213 cases have been reported from four countries – Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Chad.
For every person paralysed or killed by polio, however, another 99 are infected who have only mild or no symptoms but can spread polio to others. This is why it is important to vaccinate close to 100% of all children to stamp out the virus.
In Pakistan, while there has been opposition to immunisation drives in parts of the country, particularly after a fake CIA hepatitis vaccination campaign that helped to locate Osama Bin Laden in 2011, high-level political commitment has led to significant progress. Polio cases dropped from 198 in 2011 to just 56 this year.
That progress is now threatened by the murder of these volunteers. The vaccination campaign has been suspended in Karachi, a city of 18 million people, and as one Pakistani official told the BBC News “Many of the roughly 80,000 field workers across Pakistan, however needy they may be, will be forced to ask themselves whether the 1,500 rupee ($15) fee they will receive for a three-day campaign is worth the risk”.
A resurgence of polio in Pakistan would pose a threat to the entire world. The last case of polio reported in Australia was in a Pakistani student. In many countries that eliminated polio decades ago, vaccination rates have dropped and immunity levels are low.
Between 2002 and 2005, when religious leaders forced the cessation of the vaccination campaign in Northern Nigeria, polio was exported to 17 countries that had been polio free including Indonesia.
Last year at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, the Australian Government played a leading role in mobilising more than $100 million in funding for polio eradication.
Australia can also play a leading role in advocacy and use its seat in the UN Security Council to support whatever measures are needed to ensure that Pakistan’s children are protected from this disease, to avert a global public health emergency, and to seize this opportunity to finish the job of eradicating polio.