Pakistan to resume polio vaccination campaign months after it was halted by coronavirus

Ben Farmer
·2-min read
A Pakistani health worker marks an infant after immunisation with anti-polio drops in Lahore, Pakistan - AP
A Pakistani health worker marks an infant after immunisation with anti-polio drops in Lahore, Pakistan - AP
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Coronavirus Article Bar with counter ..

The campaign to stamp out polio in one of its last haunts will begin again next week, four months after it was halted due to the coronavirus.

Eradication efforts will resume in Pakistan as health officials worry the pause in operations meant the virus was able to gain a firmer foothold in vulnerable populations.

Pakistan will begin targeted vaccination campaigns from July 20, building to nationwide sweeps from September onwards. Districts included in the first round are Faisalabad, Attock, South Waziristan, and parts of Karachi and Quetta, with a target to vaccinate almost 800,000 children under the age of five.

Afghanistan will also begin its own vaccinations soon, sources said.

Vaccinations were halted in Pakistan for fear door-to-door teams would spread Covid-19 on their rounds. Health staff were switched from tackling the crippling poliovirus, to tackling the new illness.

The hiatus meant the country was now facing “widespread circulation” of the virus, and “heightened risks across Pakistan”, a statement said.

The pause in Pakistan came after a torrid 2019 in which cases of both the wild virus and a new virus derived from a mutated vaccine strain leapt.

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Wild virus cases rose to 147 last year, putting intense pressure on Pakistan to overhaul its efforts which were failing to overcome public suspicion and were riven with political faction-fighting. Promising attempts to get eradication back on track then ran into the coronavirus pandemic.

In Afghanistan, the disruption came as violence and a Taliban edict banning polio workers had already prevented hundreds of thousands of children from receiving drops.

“The impact of Covid-19 on our economy and communities is unprecedented,” said Dr Zafar Mirza, special assistant on health to Pakistan's prime minister, Imran Khan.

“With the disruption of essential immunisation services due to the Covid-19 pandemic, children are continuously at a higher risk of contracting polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases.”

The three-decade long worldwide polio eradication effort has cut the annual toll of the virus from around 350,000 cases in 1988 to just 33 in 2018.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two remaining countries harbouring cases of the wild poliovirus. Yet while global health officials are confident the scourge can be beaten, the “last mile” to eradication has proven stubbornly hard.

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