By Jawahir Habib (Click here to see the blog site for all of this author's Communication Initiative blogs.)

Highest number of polio cases were reported from Pashtoon community in Pakistan characterizing pashtuns as one of polio high risk groups. The latest KAP [knowledge, attitudes, and practices] study conducted in 2012 reveals that Pashto speakers have lower knowledge of polio and risk perception to the disease than the general population.

Majority of Pashtun Populations live in Khyber Pakhtoonkhaw province of Pakistan followed by South Western province Balochistan. Balochistan reported the highest incidence of polio cases in anywhere in the world. 73 polio cases were confirmed in the province where more than seventy percent of the cases were from three districts Quetta, Pishin and Killah-Abdullah Pashtun dominated districts. Data shows that 75% of the polio cases in Balochistan from 2007 to 2011 belong to the Pashtoon community. 37% of polio cases in the Quetta Block have been identified in Achakzai tribe and sub-tribes.

To place a particular focus on high risk groups for improving awareness amongst these groups regarding polio vaccination and routine immunization and for creating partners to actively support Polio Eradication Initiative [PEI], a Communication Network has been established in the high risk areas of the province. More than 200 social mobilization staff has been deployed in the five high risk districts of the province to support Polio Eradication.

The COMNet staff are people from the community - 99% of the staff deployed in Pashtun are Pashto speaking covering 100% of high risk areas. The COMNet staff worked extensively on advocacy with prominent Pashtun political parties and community leaders. One such effort was engaging Pashtunkhaw Mili Awami Party (PKMAP) a democratic party representative of Pashtoon population in Balochistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtoon Khaw. 

The advocacy efforts started with engagement of provincial and district leadership of the party highlighting the grimness of situation amongst Pashtun speaking population. PKMAP leaders have shown their visible support for PEI at levels. They have been involved in district/provincial inaugurations where they have exhibited their support by administering polio drops to children. Through community meetings where the party leaders have emphasised the importance of immunization amongst communities. They have been organizing polio walks together with COMnet where they have marched to support a polio free pashtun community and a polio free Balochistan.

One of the major challenges faced by Quetta Block in general and Districts Pishin and Killa-Abdullah in particular is availability of eligible polio team members (Vaccinators). PKMAP has provided volunteers who have been a part of immunization campaigns in door-to-door vaccination

The party members have also contributed in addressing refusal families in the OPV [oral polio vaccine-] resistant areas, during their rallies in Chaman bordering Afghanistan they announced their support for the program in front of 10,000 supporters and a similar rally was held in Pishin where more than 8,000 party supporters were present

Constant efforts by COMNet and Deputy Commissioners to engage local political leadership has paid off very well, only in June round more than 5,000 refusal children were vaccinated through support of different political parties. Engaging local leaderships to support health programs has been fruitful and Polio Eradication Initiative in India is one of the examples. With support of Government and Political leadership there is a ray of hope for polio eradication in Pakistan.

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