ISLAMABAD — Pakistani health officials on Saturday launched a seven-day vaccination campaign against polio as part of efforts aimed at eliminating the crippling disease amid a steady decline in fatalities and infections from the coronavirus, which had recently overwhelmed the country’s fragile health system.
The anti-polio campaign, which began amid tight security, aims to vaccinate as many as 34 million children across Pakistan, including former Taliban strongholds bordering Afghanistan, a government statement said.
Medical workers participating in the drive against polio were seen adhering to social distancing regulations as they wore face masks and gloves while going house-to-house to avoid a spike in coronavirus cases.
“I am hopeful that parents will continue to realize the importance of vaccinating their children during this campaign,” said Faisal Sultan, an adviser to the prime minister on health issues.
According to Rana Safdar, who heads the government’s polio program, similar campaigns against polio will be launched in October, November and December.
Earlier Saturday, Pakistan’s military said Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist, praised Islamabad’s success in the fight against coronavirus in a telephone call to the country’s army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa. It said Gates also discussed the resumption of the drive against polio.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the three countries in the world where polio — a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the polio virus — is still endemic. The non-profit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped Pakistan and other places worldwide fight the disease.
Pakistan had hoped to eliminate the disease by 2018, when only 12 cases were reported. But there was a surge in new cases the following year. Since January, Pakistan has reported about 100 new polio cases from various parts of the country, including the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.
Pakistani Taliban and other militants regularly stage attacks on polio teams and security forces escorting them because they claim the anti-polio drive is part of an alleged Western conspiracy to sterilize children or collect intelligence. Attacks on polio teams increased after it was revealed that a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign was used as a ruse by the CIA in the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos in 2011 in Pakistan.
Pakistan halted the drive against polio in March and resumed it last month amid a decline in infections and fatalities from COVID-19.
On Saturday, Pakistan reported only 9 new deaths from the new virus in the past 24 hours, increasing the country’s total of COVID-19 deaths to 6,162. So far, Pakistan has reported 288,047 cases and officials say about 93% of the patients recovered since February, when the country reported its first confirmed case.
Munir Ahmed, The Associated Press