Polio eradication on UN Secretary-General’s agenda during Pakistan visit

At a vaccination campaign in Lahore, Secretary-General António Guterres expressed personal commitment to end polio.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres vaccinated a child at a school in Lahore during the February nationwide polio campaign. ©Syed Mehdi Bukhari

The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) António Guterres yesterday visited a kindergarten school in Lahore during the first nationwide polio campaign of the year and vaccinated students with the polio vaccine. More than 39 million children across the country are set to be vaccinated during the February campaign.

The UNSG commented on the polio eradication efforts of the country, saying that, “Polio is one of the few diseases we can eradicate in the world in the next few years. This is a priority of the United Nations and I am extremely happy to see it is a clear priority for the Government of Pakistan.”

“My appeal to all leaders, religious leaders, community leaders, is to fully support the Government of Pakistan and other governments around the world to make sure that we will be able to fully eradicate polio.”

As part of his visit, Secretary-General Guterres met with frontline workers of the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme and expressed his deep solidarity. There are currently 265,000 frontline workers who go door to door during campaigns to ensure that as many children as possible are vaccinated against polio. Almost 62% of these workers are female. Women are key to helping the programme rally community members, parents and caregivers in support of polio eradication.

Dr. Yasmin Rashid, the Health Minister for Punjab, welcomed Secretary-General Guterres to the school. Dr. Rashid briefed the UN mission on Pakistan’s progress in polio eradication, the remaining challenges faced by the country, and strategies being currently implemented to interrupt virus transmission. She further praised the efforts of the United Nations in assisting Pakistan to achieve a polio-free status.

Secretary-General Guterres expressed deep solidarity with the health workers who are on the frontlines of polio eradication efforts. ©Syed Mehdi Bukhari

“The Government of Pakistan thanks the United Nations for their support and commitment to end Pakistan’s battle against polio. We are committed to working as ‘one team under one roof’ and believe together, we can make Pakistan polio-free,” Dr. Yasmin Rashid said.

In 2019, Pakistan was confronted with a resurgence of polio beyond traditional strongholds of the virus. Wild poliovirus cases increased from 12 in 2018 to 144 by the end of 2019. There are 17 cases thus far in 2020. Secretary-General Guterres’ visit comes at a time when the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme is re-thinking its operations to better respond to increased virus transmission.

WHO Pakistan Representative Dr Palitha Malipala emphasized the importance of incorporating high level commitment to polio eradication from across the political strata.

“Polio eradication remains a top priority for WHO and the global polio partnership. We will continue to support the Government of Pakistan, who spearhead this initiative in country, to overcome the challenges of the last year and put in place robust measures to ensure a polio-free world for future generations,” he said.

There is a long-standing relationship between the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and the Office of the UN Secretary-General. Two previous UNSGs – Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon – were both strong advocates of global polio eradication as an important goal of the UN system. Secretary-General Guterres’ visit continues this collaboration and emphasizes his personal oversight and commitment to a polio-free world.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries worldwide where wild poliovirus is still endemic. The concerted commitment to improving operations shown by both countries will be key to eradicating the virus.

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