KARACHI: A nationwide polio vaccination drive was launched on Monday to try to reach 38.7 million children and eradicate the paralysing and potentially deadly virus in one of the last countries where it is endemic.
Nearly 260,000 volunteers and workers fanned out across Pakistan in an effort to vaccinate every child below the age of five in a week-long campaign, the country’s national coordinator on polio, Mohammad Safdar, said.
“We’re really very close to eradicating the disease,” Safdar told Reuters, appealing to the people to cooperate with the door-to-door effort.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, that suffers from endemic polio, a childhood virus that can cause paralysis or death.
In 2018, Pakistan has had just one polio case, reported last month, Safdar said. The number of cases has steadily declined since 2014 when 306 were reported. Last year, there were only eight cases, he said.
Efforts to eradicate the disease have been undermined by opposition from certain factions of the society, who say immunisation is a foreign ploy to sterilise Muslim children or a cover for Western spies.
In January, gunmen killed a mother-and-daughter vaccination team working in Balochistan, where the year’s only case so far was later reported.
Three years earlier, 15 people were killed in a bombing by the Taliban outside a polio vaccination center in Balochistan.
Polio teams working on Monday were undeterred.
“Yes we feel threatened, but our work is like this,” said Bilquis Omar, who has served on a mobile vaccination team for the past six years in Karachi.
“We are working for the children,” she said.
Aziz Memon, who heads the Rotary Club’s Polio Plus program that funds many of the immunisation teams, said this year the drive was also making a renewed effort to reach migrants who come back and forth from Afghanistan.
“Mission number one is to get to zero cases and eradicate polio,” Memon said.
A country must have no cases for three consecutive years in order to be considered to have eradicated polio by the World Health Organisation.