Pakistani authorities have targeted 40 million children in the first nationwide polio vaccination drive of the year that began on Monday amid fears of a resurgence.
“Over 250,000 health workers would be on the streets throughout the week to vaccinate children under the age of five,’’ Pakistan’s health chief Zafar Mirza said.
Shaukat Yousafzai, Information Minister of the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, said thousands of police and paramilitary soldiers would guard health workers in regions where they are routinely attacked by Islamist militants.
Showbiz and sports stars joined the government to rally parents’ support for the drive, since the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned Pakistan that polio might become an epidemic again.
Pakistan reported 144 new cases in 2019, the highest number in half a decade, which prompted the WHO to warn that the progress made over the years to control polio, had halted.
According to official statistics, the polio cases peaked in Pakistan at 306 in 2014, the year when the offensives against the Taliban began.
The Islamist militants opposed the vaccination campaign, calling it a conspiracy by the West to sterilise Muslim children, and killed dozens of health workers and police guarding it.
However, the country managed to bring the number down to just eight cases of polio in 2017 through vaccinations funded by the WHO.
Pakistan is among only a handful of countries in the world where polio, an infectious disease caused by a virus that can cause paralysis, is still prevalent.