Pakistan polio vaccine
A health worker marks the finger of a child after administrating a polio vaccine in a neighbourhood of Lahore, Pakistan, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. Image Credit: AP

Islamabad: The French Development Agency (AFD) has pledged $55 million to support Pakistan’s efforts to end polio, a crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease. The financial commitment comes as Pakistan reported its first polio case in six months.

During a delegation visit to Pakistan, the AFD committed to supporting the Pakistan Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI) in various technical areas, including immunisation activities, disease surveillance, and polio campaign monitoring. The agency will help fill the funding gap of $55 million required under the project for polio eradication from 2022 to 2026.

The National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) Coordinator Dr Shahzad Baig emphasised the significance of the programme to Pakistan’s healthcare and thanked the French Government for the support. “The Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme is a vital part of our healthcare system” and is considered “an investment in the country’s overall health system,” he said. “The polio infrastructure has proven how it can offer the most reliable support for the most challenging of health emergencies as we saw with the COVID-19 response, which capitalised on the experiences of polio surveillance teams,” he added.

The AFD delegation was headed by Agnès Soucat, director of health and social protection, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation delegation was led by Jay Wegner, global head for Polio Eradication. Gates Foundation is the biggest contributor to polio eradication in Pakistan. The delegations met Pakistan’s Special Health Secretary Mirza Nasir ud Din Mashhood Ahmad and visited the NEOC for Polio Eradication as part of the delegation’s week-long visit to help support Pakistan in the areas of health and social protection.

Speaking about the impact of the 2022 devastating floods on Pakistan’s health infrastructure, which left 2,000 health facilities damaged, the special health secretary said: “Despite the challenges, the Government of Pakistan did not waver in its resolve to eradicate polio. We remain committed to the cause and the multiple vaccination campaigns we have held since the floods are a testament to that commitment.”

Agnes emphasised strengthening the primary health care system, integrated disease surveillance and response systems, and prioritising preparedness for emerging and re-emerging diseases and future emergencies, including building the capacity of frontline workers for primary health care and other needs. She also said that the polio infrastructure is a strength for the country and an opportunity for Pakistan to use it for other health and emergency responses post-eradication.

Pakistan’s first polio case of 2023

Pakistan reported its first polio case of 2023 on March 17 after a three-year-old boy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bannu district became the latest victim of the crippling disease. This was the first polio case in Pakistan in six months.

“It’s deeply tragic that a three-year-old child has to suffer with lifelong disabilities by a disease that is entirely preventable,” federal health minister Abdul Qadir Patel said. He added, “Polio teams continue to reach children in these areas that suffer from poor routine immunization and low nutritional standards.”