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Pakistan Denies Covering Up Polio Outbreak

by Staff Report

File Photo. Farooq Naeem—AFP

Officials react to allegations by British newspaper that negligence resulted in spread of poliovirus through vaccines

Officials in Pakistan, including the former head of the country’s polio eradication program, slammed as ‘baseless’ a report published in Britain’s The Guardian alleging a cover-up after an outbreak of the most dangerous strain of the poliovirus.

The Guardian report is absolutely baseless, I am writing to them to correct the record & issue an apology, failing which, I shall pursue my legal options,” stated a Twitter post by Babar bin Atta, who resigned as the Prime Minister’s Focal Person for Polio Eradication last month. “I shall be sending relevant documents to @guardian to prove their ‘He Said – She Said’ report wrong. Enough of this slander,” he added.

In a report published on Thursday, The Guardian’s Hannah Ellis-Petersen has alleged that authorities in Pakistan are planning a covert vaccination program to contain an outbreak of the P2 strain of polio, which causes paralysis and primarily affects children under-5. It claims that a source within Pakistan’s polio eradication program has shown it documentation that 12 children have been infected with this strain, which had previously been eliminated from the country.

“The new cases were allegedly kept hidden from the government and from international donors, including the U.K.’s Department for International Development, under direct instruction from Babar Bin Atta, the prime minister’s focal representative on polio eradication, who was last month forced to resign after he was accused of corruption,” states The Guardian, adding that the alleged cases appear to be concentrated in the country’s north, mostly originating from the Diamer district and one from the federal capital, Islamabad.

All polio cases registered in Pakistan have to be conveyed to international health bodies. Citing a source within the polio eradication program, the report claims this was not done under Atta.

The same source alleges that the renewed outbreak of the P2 strain occurred due to a mismanagement of vaccines, which carry a live strain of the disease to create immunity. “After the strand was eliminated from Pakistan five years ago, all P2 vaccines should have been collected from hospitals and clinics and not used. However, it appears a P2 vaccine was administered accidentally and a child became a carrier for the disease,” it states, adding that testing had allegedly verified the new cases were all carrying a vaccine-derived form of the disease .

To counter this threat, claims The Guardian, a “secret” vaccination campaign will begin in the affected areas from Monday in an attempt to contain it. “It is understood that only senior members of the polio program are aware of the P2 campaign, with others—even those who will be administering the vaccines—led to believe it is a standard P1 and P3 polio vaccination program,” it claims, with the source adding if anything were to go wrong, P2 could come roaring back and spread throughout the country once more. “Will they just keep telling more lies to cover up their mistakes and put more children at risk?” the source asks.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world that have not entirely eradicated polio. In the past year, polio eradication efforts in Pakistan appear to have suffered a setback, going from 12 reported cases in 2018 to 80 thus far this year. Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), who preceded Atta as the prime minister’s focal person on polio eradication, blamed her successor and incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan for the failures.

“P.M. Khan did not take heed to the program and ignored the complaints which were coming to him against Babar Bin Atta,” she told The Guardian. “They covered up the refusals and they allegedly used fake markers on kids to show they were vaccinated who actually were not. The damage that has been done to the program has literally reversed many of our achievements,” she added.

State Minister of Health of Pakistan, Zafar Mirza, however denied any cover-up and dismissed the report in a posting on Twitter. “Absolutely no coverup. Sabin-like type 2 derived virus outbreak in Pakistan is vigilantly being monitored & appropriately responded,” he said. “Such outbreaks are being reported from countries even after Polio eradication e.g. Nigeria, China, Indonesia, Congo.”

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