Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan have launched a new door-to-door campaign to immunize millions of children against polio despite the risks posed by the coronavirus, officials said.
In Pakistan, the five-day campaign that began on Monday will target more than 40 million children under the age of five.
About 285,000 frontline workers will be spread across 156 districts in Pakistan to administer the oral drops while following COVID-19 safety protocols.
“COVID-19 continues to challenge us, but we are committed to ensuring the continuity of essential public health services in these difficult times,” said the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant for Health, Dr Faisal Sultan, in a press release.
In Afghanistan, the campaign intends to immunize around 9.6 million children in 32 of the country’s 34 provinces, a health official said.
In the second polio vaccination campaign this year, more than 55,000 workers will implement the vaccination for five days, according to the polio coordinator of the Afghan Ministry of Health, Mir Jan Rasikh.
However, a big stumbling block remains in the Afghan polio campaign. The Taliban, as in previous years, would not allow the door-to-door campaign in areas under their control.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid says the group is still in talks with the World Health Organization or the WHO to reach an agreement on the program in which workers go door to door to carry out vaccinations. .
In areas under Taliban control, the process is delayed for security reasons, according to Mujahid.
About three million children have been deprived of the polio vaccine in the past three years, according to the Afghan Ministry of Health.
So far this year, there have been around two dozen polio cases in the country, the ministry said.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries in the world where polio is endemic, after Nigeria was declared free from wild poliovirus last year.
Pakistan came close to eliminating polio, but recorded 147 cases, a five-year record in 2019, amid vaccine boycotts and attacks on health workers.
Pakistan launched a polio program in 1994, but the work of health workers has been repeatedly hampered by violent attacks.
The United Nations-funded campaign to immunize children under five is facing opposition from religious conservatives, who believe the vaccine, given in multiple cycles, is intended to make Muslim children infertile.
Pakistani armed groups also regularly launch attacks on polio teams and the police who escort them, claiming the anti-polio campaign is part of a Western plot to collect intelligence.
These attacks escalated 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, killed by US commandos in 2011 in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s second polio vaccination campaign of the year comes as the country struggles to bring down steadily rising daily infections of the coronavirus, currently at over 4,000 a day, amid a third wave of the pandemic .
Pakistan on Monday locked virus hotspots in more than two dozen cities with higher infection rates and began the process of vaccinating people aged 50 and over.
But the vaccination campaign, which began last month, has so far received a lukewarm response. Pakistan has recorded more than 659,000 cases of coronavirus and 14,256 deaths.