On 22 February 2022, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell (left) speaks with Sumaira, who holds her as-yet-unnamed baby boy, at the Health Education room of the neonatal unit of Islamabad’s Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), where mothers are taught about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, hygiene, skin-to-skin contact with the newborn and routine immunisation

While Pakistan has made remarkable progress in the fight against polio and COVID-19, efforts to fight malnutrition and increase school enrollment need to be scaled up, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said today at the end of a three-day visit to the country.

During the visit, which was her first trip to the field since she assumed her functions as UNICEF Executive Director on February 1, Russell visited UNICEF-supported programmes, met with children, families and frontline workers, and held discussions with Pakistani government officials.

“The number of wild polio cases in Pakistan has declined steadily over the years, and no child has been paralyzed from the disease in a year,” Russell said. “However, the risk of infection remains high, especially among vulnerable communities near the border with Afghanistan. We need to sustain the momentum and go the last mile so that no child has to suffer from a disease we know how to prevent. In addition, as 1.3 million children have not received their full childhood vaccines and 350,000 children have not received any vaccine, we need to develop synergies between the polio and routine immunization programmes to make sure all children are healthy.”

Meeting with Afghan refugee women outside Islamabad, Russell commended the work of frontline workers who go door-to-door to immunize every child.

At a school for girls in the capital, Russell saw first-hand how students use digital tools to acquire new skills and heard from staff about the importance of new technologies. “Digital learning is a must have,” said Russell. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made it very clear that students and communities can no longer afford to live in digital deserts.”

At least 21 million children of school age in Pakistan do not go to school, and an additional 1 million children are likely to drop out due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“No country can afford to have one third of its schoolchildren with no basic literacy, numeracy or computer skills. Education is not just a right – it’s also a lifeline,” she said.

Meeting with Prime Minister Imran Khan, the UNICEF Executive Director commended Pakistan’s efforts in the fight against polio. She also praised the effective roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. More than 200 million vaccine doses have been administered, half of which were procured through COVAX with support from UNICEF.

“Pakistan has shown strong leadership in its COVID-19 vaccination campaign by implementing a well-coordinated, data-driven response. I hope that the Government will apply the lessons from this well executed experience to scale up its response to the nutrition crisis which has left 2 out of 5 children in the country stunted and 1 out of 6 children suffering from wasting,” she said.