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Pakistan’s Winnable War on Polio

LAHORE – I grew up in Pakistan throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s, and my parents, like parents everywhere, wanted me to be fit and healthy and to get the best start in life. I was lucky enough to be brought up in a middle-class family with good sanitation facilities and clean water. I was also given vaccines to prevent life-threatening infections such as polio and measles.

But I remember the many children in my neighborhood who were not vaccinated. Those early experiences of children I knew contracting disease, especially the poliovirus that is so visibly impairing, shaped my views on the immense value of good health and the power of vaccines.

I live in London now, but my roots will always be in Pakistan. As head of the British Pakistan Foundation, I help philanthropists from the Pakistani diaspora invest in sustainable and effective social development projects. Over the last few weeks, I have been in my hometown of Lahore, the country’s second-largest city, discussing everything from the upcoming elections to everyday life challenges. Last week, I visited an orphanage on the outskirts of the city, set up after the 2005 earthquake that killed an estimated 75,000 people. I was impressed and encouraged that roughly four-fifths of the 85 children were fully vaccinated.

National statistics on immunization back up the positive signs that I saw. In 1994, Pakistan had roughly 25,000 cases of polio, many resulting in death or permanent disability. But, thanks to intensive vaccination campaigns, there were only 58 cases of polio in the entire country last year – down 70% from 2011. And the government and international health officials have agreed on a plan to stop polio transmission in Pakistan completely by the end of 2014 – a historic accomplishment that would be a huge source of national pride.