ISLAMABAD – Pakistan said Tuesday it would relaunch door to door vaccinations of children against polio next week after a four-month suspension due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The announcement comes amid a substantial decline in daily COVID-19 infections across Pakistan, one of the two polio-endemic countries in the world along with its war-torn neighbor Afghanistan.
Pakistani officials have so far recorded 58 new polio cases this year from across the country amid warnings by the World Health Organization that “transmission continues to be widespread.”
The anti-polio drive, starting July 20, initially aims to vaccinate about 800,000 children under the age of five in high-risk Pakistani districts, including Karachi and Quetta, to protect them against the crippling disease.
The special assistant to the prime minister on health, Zafar Mirza, acknowledged the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdowns to prevent its spread have had a significant impact on Pakistan’s already under-resourced and deteriorating public health care systems.
“With the disruption of essential immunization services due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children are continuously at a higher risk of contracting polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” an official statement quoted Mirza as saying.
The coronavirus reached Pakistan in late February, prompting the government to redirect all health program strengths and capacities to support COVID-19 surveillance and response efforts. Mirza announced last week he had tested positive for the virus.
The national tally of coronavirus infections has hit at least 254,000, including more than 5,300 deaths. Officials reported less than 2,000 new cases on Tuesday, showing a consistent and substantial decrease in daily infections.
“The door to door campaigns will also be utilized to raise awareness on COVID preventive measures and referring mothers and children for other essential vaccinations as well as the antenatal care services,” said Rana Mohammad Safdar, who oversees Pakistan’s polio eradication program.
Pakistan’s efforts to rid the country of polio have lately suffered setbacks due to attacks on vaccinators and police personnel guarding them. The deadly violence is also cited a factor for the upsurge in new cases that had dropped to only 12 cases in 2018.
In traditionally conservative parts of majority-Muslim Pakistan, religious fanatics see the vaccine as a Western-led conspiracy to sterilize children. Militant groups operating in these areas also condemn the drive against polio as an effort to collect intelligence on their activities.
Officials say attacks on polio teams have particularly increased since 2011 when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency organized a fake vaccination campaign with the help of a local doctor, enabling U.S. forces to locate and kill fugitive al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.