Pakistan launches year’s first nationwide anti-polio campaign

The three-day drive aims to immunise more than 44 million children under the age of five against the viral disease.

Pakistan nationwide polio drive
PM Shehbaz Sharif administered polio drops to children as he formally inaugurated the campaign on Sunday [Handout via Al Jazeera]

Islamabad, Pakistan – Pakistan has launched its first nationwide anti-polio campaign for the year, aiming to immunise more than 44 million children under the age of five to protect them from the viral disease.

The three-day campaign started on Monday in more than 150 districts of the country, which along with Afghanistan are the only two countries where the debilitating neurodegenerative disease is still endemic.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Sunday formally inaugurated the campaign at an event in the capital Islamabad, where he also administered polio drops to children.

“I have the conviction that all the provincial governments along with the federal government will continue collaborating to eradicate the disease forever,” Sharif said in his address at the ceremony.

Pakistan nationwide polio drive
Sharif said a resurgence of the virus has raised global concerns [Handout via Al Jazeera]

Sharif said a resurgence of the virus has raised global concerns, including from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other stakeholders.

“Unfortunately, Pakistan was among the few countries where polio cases had resurfaced,” a statement from the prime minister’s office said.

“A few years back, during the government of Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, these cases were completely eradicated,” it said, referring to his elder brother and a former prime minister.

The year 2021 saw just one new case of polio in Pakistan, raising hopes of success in its battle against the disease. However, that number rose to 20 in 2022, all of them detected in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Seventeen of those cases were found in the tribal-dominated district of North Waziristan while three others were spotted in the Lakki Marwat district.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are yet to be declared free of the Wild Poliovirus type 1 (WPV-1) disease.

To be officially recognised as polio-free, a country must show an absence of wild poliovirus transmission for at least three consecutive years, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

An official of the National Emergency Operations Centre told Al Jazeera the current nationwide campaign is the first since May last year.

“We were supposed to start a nationwide campaign in August last year but due to the floods, we could not do so. Now we are aiming to utilise more than 350,000 health workers to not only provide polio drops but also additional vitamin-A supplement,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan was hit by catastrophic floods last year, which affected 33 million people and killed more than 1,700. Many, including children, have died of waterborne diseases caused by the stagnant floodwaters.

Pakistan’s fight against polio has often faced resistance from religious and armed groups who allege the vaccination programme is part of a “Western conspiracy” to sterilise the country’s children. Some also claim the vaccines contain pig fat, making them not halal, though officials have rejected such rumours.

More than 100 people associated with the polio immunisation campaign have been killed and many others wounded across the country in the past decade.

The latest such attack took place on January 5 during a provincial anti-polio campaign when four policemen were injured in Dera Ismail Khan district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Resistance to polio vaccines in some areas of Pakistan also gained force following the 2011 killing of al-Qaeda’s former leader Osama bin Laden by the United States military in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.

In order to track bin Laden, the CIA had organised a fake polio vaccination drive in the area.

Source: Al Jazeera