By Michael Galway
Last December, I traveled to Peshawar, ground zero in Pakistan’s fight against polio. As the capital of Khyber-Paktunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), this is where the debilitating disease needs to be stopped in order to prevent an explosive outbreak, one that can nonetheless be easily prevented by a cheap and safe vaccine. Of the 144 children across Pakistan paralyzed by polio in 2010, over half were from FATA, and 17 percent were from KP. As a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, my goal in going to Peshawar was to hear firsthand what was being done to bring polio under control, and see what more could be done to ensure that it disappears altogether, as it has in much of the rest of the world.
Over the past two decades, polio has been reduced by 99 percent globally. Yet the disease continues to paralyze children in Pakistan because the vaccine is not getting to every child. Why? In KP and FATA there are two main reasons. First, more than 25 percent of children in FATA are not being reached consistently because of a protracted and deadly conflict with insurgents. Another 10 percent of children are missed either because vaccinators fail to reach every home or parents refuse to immunize their children.
On January 25, however, the federal government stepped up its fight to end polio. Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari launched a National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication, laying out a national blueprint to eliminate polio from the country. This includes formal plans for tracking progress on polio objectively and regularly, setting up national and provincial task forces, and engaging Pakistan’s leadership in polio eradication activities. Two days later, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and Bill Gates announced a partnership to help polio vaccines reach 32 million children in Pakistan. Then, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that his country would double its contribution to polio eradication, helping vaccinations reach an additional 45 million children around the world.