Pakistan holds fresh anti-polio drive despite rise in COVID cases

Five-day vaccination campaign hoping to eradicate the crippling children’s disease this year is launched amid tight security.

A healthcare worker administers a polio vaccine to a child in Lahore [KM Chaudary/AP]

Despite a steady rise in coronavirus cases, Pakistan has launched a five-day vaccination campaign against polio amid tight security, hoping to eradicate the crippling children’s disease this year.

The drive is the first anti-polio campaign in 2021. The previous campaign took place last August – during a brief decline in fatalities and infections from the coronavirus – and included former Taliban strongholds bordering Afghanistan.

This time, polio workers will try to vaccinate 40 million children across Pakistan while at the same time following social distancing measures and other precautions due to the coronavirus, said Zulfiqar Babakhel, a spokesman for the polio programme.

A healthcare worker administers a polio vaccine to a child in Lahore [KM Chaudary/AP]

Supplementary vitamin A drops will be given to “help build general immunity,” he said, adding that the polio workers will don gloves and face masks and go house to house during the campaign.

There has lately been a steady increase in both fatalities from COVID-19 and the number of new infections in the country.

Pakistan has registered more than 504,000 cases of the virus, including 10,676 deaths since the first infection was detected in February. On Monday, it reported 1,877 new cases and 32 deaths in the past 24 hours.

Pakistan had hoped to eliminate polio back in 2018, when only 12 cases were reported. But in the years since, there has been an uptick in new cases.

Last year, Pakistan registered at least 84 cases of polio across the country, down from 147 the year before, according to official data.

Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan are the only two remaining countries in the world where polio is endemic, after Nigeria was last year declared free of the wild polio virus.

Eradicating polio requires that more than 90 percent of children be immunised, typically in mass campaigns involving millions of health workers – a challenge under the coronavirus pandemic.

The World Health Organization had initially aimed to wipe out polio by 2000, a deadline repeatedly pushed back and missed.

The Taliban and other militant groups regularly stage attacks on polio teams and security forces escorting them, as well as vaccination centres and health workers, claiming the anti-polio drive is part of an alleged Western conspiracy to sterilise children or collect intelligence.

These attacks increased after it was revealed that a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign was used as a ruse by the CIA in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed by United States commandos in 2011 in Pakistan.

Since 2012, more than 101 people have been killed in attacks on polio vaccination teams and the security personnel escorting them, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies