Pakistan on Monday launched a vaccination drive against polio to cover the immunity gap over the past months caused by pandemic-related disruptions to the programme to eradicate the disease.
The five-day immunization drive, the third such national campaign so far this year, will see over 39 million children under the age of five vaccinated.
“We are determined to close the immunity gap in children which had unfortunately widened because of disruption of essential services due to COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to Prime Minister on National Health.
Around 285,000 polio frontline workers will go house-to-house, observing strict Covid-19 guidelines, to administer the vaccine.
A total of 81 polio cases have been reported so far this year, according to official statistics.
Pakistan started a polio programme in 1994, but health workers were repeatedly hampered in their work by violent incidents at the hand of extremists.
The disease has spread in Pakistan’s mountainous north-west near the Afghan border, which has remained under the control of Islamist militants for years.
The UN-funded drive to vaccinate children also faces opposition from religious conservatives, who believe the vaccine, administered in multiple rounds, is intended to make Muslim children sterile.
Polio cases peaked at 306 in 2014, the year an offensive against the Taliban began. There had been a sharp reduction since. The case count fell to 54 in 2015 and stood at 20 or less in the three years that followed.
The country came very close to eliminating polio, but recorded 147 cases, a five-year high, in 2019, amid vaccine boycotts and attacks on health workers.