PESHAWAR -- Health teams fighting to eradicate polio from Pakistan have shifted their focus towards stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Instead of going door to door to immunise children and to debunk anti-vaccine narratives, members of such teams are now visiting mosques and speaking with customers in markets to inform them of preventive measures against COVID-19.
"The National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) decided to engage staff of the Polio Eradication Initiative (PEI) for... awareness regarding the novel coronavirus at the community level," said Dr. Rana Safdar, the national co-ordinator of NEOC.
"The decision has been taken in support of ongoing efforts being made by the federal and provincial health authorities to mitigate risks associated with COVID-19," The Nation newspaper reported on March 3.
PEI's extensive surveillance network and capabilities are expected to enhance the country's response to COVID-19, added The Nation.
"About 70% to 80% of our approximately 40,000 health team workers are now engaged in counselling civilians to convince them about adopting international [standard operating procedures] for stemming the coronavirus spread," said Abdul Basit, a co-ordinator at the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Soon after the emergence of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, authorities decided to halt polio eradication efforts for two months with the objective of engaging the staff for public safety, Basit said.
PEI team members are educating the public about the severity of COVID-19 and its dangers to health and urging them to adopt preventive measures, including hand washing, mask wearing, sanitisation, social distancing, and avoidance of handshakes, he added.
Co-operation with religious leaders
Health teams are visiting mosques and announcing messages via loudspeakers, he said.
Religious scholars associated with PEI are co-operating to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 by educating worshippers through sermons, Basit added.
The health teams are well trained in communicating with the general public because of their experience in convincing parents to immunise their children for polio, he said.
"Negative propaganda by extremist elements against polio vaccination has polluted the minds of many parents who refuse to allow polio team members to administer drops to their children because of misconceptions," Basit said.
"We visit different shops and inform shopkeepers how to maintain distance between customers and in this regard also make chalk marks for better understanding," said Peshawar District Health Communication Officer Faisal Khan.
Most Pakistanis are responding positively when team members talk about avoiding handshakes and embraces, he said.
"Our main focus is on rural areas, as in urban localities residents are behaving responsibly because of awareness about the disease through media," he said. In rural localities, authorities ask prayer leaders to persuade worshippers to avoid gathering in mosques and to maintain a safe distance during prayers.
Polio eradication teams are using social media for public awareness to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he added.
"It is a commendable step because Pakistanis are not following the lockdown and other safety measures, especially social distancing," said Muhammad Ilyas, a shopkeeper in Peshawar.
The public needs more awareness and education, and in this regard other departments should also come forward to help the government prevent the mass spread of the deadly pandemic, he said.
Ilyas said he appreciates the efforts of health team workers, who were already overburdened and at risk from attacks.
As of Thursday (May 7), the country had 24,703 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 564 deaths, according to the government's COVID-19 site.