MUZAFFARGARH    -   Anti-polio workers of Pakistan endure severe hardships in eliminating the deadly disease from Pakistan.

Kulsoom Akhtar, an anti-polio worker deployed in Rangpur, Mu­zaffargarh’s top, hard-to-reach union council (UC), referring to a child who contracted polio in her district in 2020, said: “I was ex­tremely saddened to learn that a child had fallen prey to the polio vi­rus in a neighbouring village which is a stone’s throw from Rangpur. I visited the child and found her par­ents in deep despair.”

“The parents’ despair stems from remorse”, she adds, saying: “I learned from the local com­munity that they refused vac­cination to their girl child based on a misconception”. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This proverb is best suited to Ms Akhtar who joins male po­lio workers in every campaign to reach and vaccinate children in this isolated village.

When asked why she agreed to work in an union council which is even challenging for her male counterparts, she replied with conviction: “After seeing this child near Rangpur, I pledged to my­self that I would do my bit to save more children from polio.”

“A majority of children we want to reach are in these villages which are secluded and located in riv­erine areas. In the summer the weather is typically hot. In the win­ter fog blankets the river bringing the visibility down to a few feet. In the monsoon season the river cur­rent is phenomenal”, says Kulsoom sharing her observations of the challenges of outreach.

“Years ago as a child, I once dreamt that I was sailing through rough waters in a dingy. At that time, I could never imagine that one day I would be travelling daily on a boat to vaccinate chil­dren and save them from a crip­pling virus. But the disability of this child from Rangpur changed me altogether,” said this commit­ted anti-polio worker. Kulsoom Akhtar is one of the 60,000 anti-polio workers who went door-to-door to vaccinate nearly seven 7 million children in nine districts of Punjab in the first sub-national immunization drive of the year. The immunization teams includ­ed area-in-charges, district and union council supervisors, mo­bile teams, fixed team members and transit team members.

The campaign was held under the watchful eyes of provincial monitors. The Provincial Emer­gency Operations Centre (PEOC) had deployed experts from all ar­eas to facilitate preparedness and the implementation of campaign activities by local teams in priority areas. All frontline polio workers were thoroughly trained on Co­vid-19 SOPs, protocols, and pre­ventive measures to be followed during household and field visits during vaccination.

The campaign which was launched on January 24 and con­tinued till January 28 ended on a high note achieving a coverage of over 100 per cent in Punjab.

The job of polio workers who go door-to-door is extremely ar­duous. But the efforts of those working in hard-to-reach areas like Rangpur are even more chal­lenging. The scattered nature of the locations where children live and the challenges in accessibility as well as movement are taxing mentally and physically.

The hard work of polio work­ers including Kulsoom Akhtar has given fruitful results. Punjab has not reported a single polio case in over 14 months now. Although the programme has achieved similar results in the past, which is a low reported case number, the signifi­cant decrease in the virus found in the environment is unique.

Reaching and sustaining zero polio cases and transmission re­quires an even greater effort to ensure that the momentum in this ‘now or never’ phase of polio eradication in Pakistan is carried forward.

“There is a small window of op­portunity as we begin work in the morning. Catching a boat to reach remote villages and then moving back to the city after vaccinating every child in the village, requires patience which tests our resolve. The setting sun is always a stark reminder that we must finish our work on time and return to the other side before it gets too dark,” says Kulsoom narrating her chal­lenges in reaching all children in her target areas.

The union council of Rang­pur, renowned for its associa­tion with the folk tale of Heer Ranjha, has a target list of over 8775 children and is located 55 kilometres away from the main city. The riverine area in the UC is stretched across 36kilometres which is remote and extremely difficult to reach, only accessible to visitors by boat. Polio work­ers have no other route to reach these villages except by crossing the river Chenab every time to vaccinate targeted children.

The district has deployed 16 teams in this riverine stretch to reach nearly 4,000 children. In addition, polio teams are sup­ported by social mobilizers who occasionally visit villages to mo­bilize communities.

“They conduct meetings and information sessions when and if there is any reluctance from communities. They help us reach every child which is important to save these children from po­lio”, observes Kulsoom. “Be it the summer, winter or rain, there is no let-up in our resolve to save more children from this crippling disability,” she added.

“I appeal to all the parents to always cooperate with polio teams whenever they come to your homes. Your support to our polio teams will ensure that po­lio is eradicated from Pakistan once and for all,” said Kulsoom Akhtar passionately.