Pakistan is only five cases short of last year’s polio count of 58. Before long, the country will have crossed this mark, cutting a sorry figure globally for its failure to contain poliovirus circulation. One of the reasons for its declining performance is the calculated ‘relocation’ of the ‘Prime Minister’s Polio Monitoring and Coordination Cell’ from the PM’s Secretariat to the Ministry of National Health Services, Regulations and Coordination (NHSRC).
The Cell was the main outfit responsible for Pakistan’s recent successes against poliovirus. Small wonder then that only yesterday, the high-powered International Monitoring Board (IMB) has also politely urged the government to quickly fix the problem of loss of national level oversight of the programme, which has ‘drifted out of control.’
Established during the tenure of former Prime Minster, Yusuf Raza Gilani, it was the PM’s Polio Cell that launched the much-trumpeted National Emergency Action Plan for Polio Eradication in 2011. This plan was seen as the key strategic document to have affected a decline of over 70% in the number of cases last year (58), compared to the massive poliovirus outbreak of 2011, when Pakistan reported a whooping 198 cases.
According to the recently released report of the IMB, which is a high-powered international body on polio eradication, “The 2012 National Emergency Action Plan placed influential District Commissioners in the driving seat of vaccination campaigns, and established committees at Union Council, district, provincial, and national level to ensure accountability. At the top of this chain sat the Prime Minister’s Task Force. His Focal Person for Polio Eradication energetically toured the country, holding District Commissioners robustly to account. Vaccination teams were reconstituted. A direct disbursement mechanism was established, to ensure that vaccinators were paid on time and in full.”
Since the PM’s Polio Cell exercised direct control over the district bureaucracy by virtue of its location within the PM’s Secretariat, and the PM’s Focal Person also enjoyed uninterrupted access to the PM for immediate decision-making on polio-related issues, it was critical for this entity to remain intact at its erstwhile location.
However, the Minister of State for NHSRC Saira Afzal Tarar begs to differ. Talking to this correspondent from Balochistan, where she was on a visit in connection with polio activities, Saira said, “The real outcome depends on how much you are pushing. All meetings are being held as before. We are constantly in touch with the chief ministers and chief secretaries, as well as the governor of KP.”
The latest IMB report reminds the present government of its commitment to polio eradication, and then advises that the vacant position of the PM’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication be filled. “Following elections in May 2013, the caretaker government dismantled the Prime Minister’s Polio Monitoring Cell, and national level oversight of the program drifted out of control. The new incumbent government is fixing this problem, but vital time has been lost. The new oversight arrangements need to be completed quickly, including appointing a Prime Minister’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication, if this is the intention,” questions the report.