Results are just in at the National Emergency Operations Centre offices in Islamabad, Pakistan and the news is good. Environmental samples taken across Pakistan found no trace of the polio virus, the first time all the samples were negative.
According to UNICEF Team Lead Aidan O’Leary on Friday, April’s envirnomental samples were all negative. About 9 percent of samples taken earlier in the year were positive. Just two years ago in 2014, fully one-third of samples were positive.
This doesn’t mean, however, that polio has been eradicated in Pakistan–one of the last two countries on the planet where the disease is still considered endemic.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) weekly report issued on Thursday noted a new case with onset of paralysis on April 26, the most recent of 11 cases of polio in Pakistan this year. Five cases have been tracked in neighboring Afghanistan.
While O’Leary made clear that the environmental samples could not be interpreted as a sign that suspension of transmission of the disease might have been achieved, he was equally clear that this is a big deal. It is a clear sign that the polio virus is on its last gasp in Pakistan.
He went on to explain that the GPEI team, comprised of the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rotary, the US CDC and the Gates Foundation with help from world governments, is coordinating work across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in order to treat the region as a single “epidemiological block.”
The polio effort in Pakistan is at the peak of crescendo this week as two weeks of National Immunization Days (NID) wrap up with a goal of having vaccinated some 37 million children under five in the country.
The goal, O’Leary reiterated repeatedly is “zero missed children.” Whatever the other elements of the strategy may be, there is a clear understanding that if every child has been immunized there is no one left to host the virus and it will die.
This NID is the last of the “low season.” Polio is a seasonal disease that flourishes in summer, so much so that in the early twentieth century many mothers in the U.S. reportedly concluded that ice cream caused polio.
With temperatures in Pakistan well over 100 degrees, O’Leary notes that Rotary stepped in with some much needed resources on short notice, including umbrellas and water for some of the the 220,000 vaccinators around the country working outside in the heat.
O’Leary expressed appreciation to Rotary for their “unwavering support” in “good times and not good times.”
Juxtaposing the threat of high season against April’s environmental samples helps us to see clearly the the situation in Pakistan. Containment over the summer could lead to suspension of transmission in the fall as the low season begins anew.
Dr. Rana Safdar, Head of the National Emergency Operations Centre, said, “For the first time ever all 39 environmental samples collected in April across Pakistan are negative for Polio virus including Shaheen Muslim Town Peshawar. Congratulations to Pak PEI team. Let’s keep the spirit till the job is done.”
“Let’s not take our foot off the accelerator,” O’Leary says. Suspending transmission of the disease requires that the countries remain “very very focused.”