Afghan deportations put polio vaccination work at risk: Prof. Shahnaz Ibrahim

​​The recent Afghan deportations can put Pakistan's polio eradication efforts at risk, says Paediatric Neurologist Prof. Shahnaz Ibrahim who has been working in the area for over 20 years and is the WHO's Regional Certification Commission for the EMRO ​or Eastern Medical Region Organization. This means that she certifies Pakistan as an expert for the WHO.

“It may be worse because then they will go in hiding. When they go in hiding, you can't track them," she said. “You are jeopardizing the polio program with this decision."

Prior to this decision, at least vaccinators knew where families lived. But when people take buses from Peshawar, Lahore and Karachi, and transit through Sohrab Goth, there is a high likelihood of the virus spreading.

At the end of 2023, she went to Geneva to present the 2022 annual progress report on Pakistan as part of the National Documentation for Certification of Poliomyelitis. Pakistan had 20 cases (plus one probable case) last year, all from South Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The surveillance showed that the environmental samples were still positive (30). According to her, the Mehsud belt was a hotspot as it is particularly inaccessible.

“This part of KP is right across a porous border with Afghanistan's Nangarhar where they had the maximum environmental samples growing," she said.  

 In 2023, Pakistan had three cases from Karachi. The last one surfaced in October with two different genetic types in the stool. One case was linked to Afghanistan and the Karachi one was not. “This means it is endemic," she added.

The global committee expressed concerns that the environmental sample was still emerging positive and the experts discussed plans of action. “The polio eradication initiative is working," she stressed. But the challenge is to keep our polio vaccination rates up.

Prof Shahnaz was asked to chair the National Certification Committee in 2021. ​