First Person: Pakistan health worker commits to polio fight, despite COVID fears

Polio vaccination campaigns have resumed in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two countries in the world where polio is endemic, following a hiatus imposed by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The restart has been accompanied by new guidelines, to help ensure the safety of patients, and health workers.

In an interview with UN News, Ms. Gul described how she and her colleagues reacted to the arrival of COVID-19 in Pakistan, and why she continues to put herself at risk.

“I have been aware of the importance of vaccination from an early age. I remember my mother telling me and my siblings that we must complete our vaccinations. She would tell us how harmful polio is, and how we could be paralysed if we caught it.

From the beginning of my career with UNICEF, though, I have been confronted with people who were very resistant to the idea of vaccination. In more isolated communities, in particular, there are many misconceptions about vaccines. Some people think that the vaccine will make them infertile, or that it is a Western conspiracy. Sometimes we would be subject to abuse, or even physical attacks.

So, I am used to risk, but the beginning of the pandemic was, nevertheless, a very unsettling time for me and my colleagues. In Karachi, where I’m based, lockdown began on 22 March. Our office gave us 10 days leave and told us to stay at home. But, after returning to work, I caught COVID-19. 

I was then quarantined and became very weak. I had headaches, fever and shortness of breath. My family were very concerned by my condition and, eventually, they took me to the hospital. 

Thanks to Allah, I survived, but I am not completely recovered, and my body is still weak. I have swollen feet, and if I walk for more than 10 minutes, I will find myself sweating, and out of breath.

Despite this, I went back to work. We are health workers: our job is to take care of other people’s children, by vaccinating as many of them as possible. Yes, COVID-19 is dangerous, but polio is still endemic in this country. We have to focus on both these diseases.

As for my own personal safety, I am a little afraid, but I think that I will be okay if I follow the standard procedures: wear gloves and a face mask, use hand sanitizer, and make sure that I frequently wash my hands. 

UNICEF/Asad Zaidi

A health worker vaccinates a 4-year-old girl against polio at the door of her house in Bhatti gate area of Lahore Punjab Province, Pakistan.

Growing resistance

The lockdown has had some very serious consequences. Children’s health is definitely being put at risk due the pandemic. A friend of mine, for example, has a child who is nearly two years old, and she has been too scared to go to the hospital to complete her child’s polio vaccinations. 

And we are seeing the negative effects that the lockdown is having on the wider community: many people have lost their jobs, and have been asking us for ration provisions, and other health services. Sometimes we have received abuse. Last year, before the pandemic, we had seen some real improvements in the ways that the community responded to us. But now, we are worried that their resistance to us, and our programme, may be increasing.

But this doesn’t put me off. We know that we have the support of many people, including political leaders, and other influential members of the community, and it gives me inner happiness to know that I am helping my country, as part of a national cause.”


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