Pakistan resumes polio immunisation drive amid Covid-19 threat

Published July 20, 2020
A health worker (R) marks the finger of a child after administering polio vaccine drops during a door-to-door campaign in Lahore on July 20, 2020. — AFP
A health worker (R) marks the finger of a child after administering polio vaccine drops during a door-to-door campaign in Lahore on July 20, 2020. — AFP

Wearing face masks and gloves, vaccinators on Monday resumed an anti-polio drive that had been halted since March due to the coronavirus outbreak, seeking to reach at least 800,000 children in five days.

The disruption of the drive has raised fears of a spike in polio cases in Pakistan, which, along with neighbouring Afghanistan is just one of two countries in the world where the disease remains endemic, officials said.

According to official figures, 60 polio cases have been reported in 2020 thus far in Pakistan. Cases fell to eight in 2017 and 12 in 2018, but then spiked up to 147 in 2019, according to the World Health Organisation.

A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door campaign in the outskirts of Quetta on July 20, 2020. — AFP
A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door campaign in the outskirts of Quetta on July 20, 2020. — AFP

The drive will target specific high-risk areas in all four provinces, Rana Muhammad Safdar, the country's top polio official told Reuters, adding that vaccinators have been fully equipped with protective gear to guard against the coronavirus to ensure field workers do not spread Covid-19.

Pakistan has thus far registered 265,629 cases of the novel coronavirus infection and 5,626 deaths.

Vaccinators wear protective masks as they get their temperature checked during an anti-polio campaign in a low-income neighbourhood as the spread of the coronavirus continues in Karachi. — Reuters
Vaccinators wear protective masks as they get their temperature checked during an anti-polio campaign in a low-income neighbourhood as the spread of the coronavirus continues in Karachi. — Reuters

Sindh health minister Azra Fazal Pechuho told media on Monday that field staff had been given extensive training to ensure child safety.

Vaccinators have been instructed to minimise contact and ask parents to hold children for oral polio drops, the Emergency Operations Centre for Polio in Sindh said in a statement.

Unicef warned in April that disruptions in vaccination drives could create pathways to disastrous outbreaks in 2020 and beyond.

Challenges

While Covid-19 poses the greatest threat this year, vaccination drives in Pakistan have previously faced numerous challenges.

A boy gets his finger marked after he is administered polio vaccine drops during an anti-polio campaign in a low-income neighbourhood in Karachi. — Reuters
A boy gets his finger marked after he is administered polio vaccine drops during an anti-polio campaign in a low-income neighbourhood in Karachi. — Reuters

Last year, religious hard-liners in the northwestern city of Peshawar spread rumours of children falling sick due to the vaccine, triggering backlash in the conservative northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where most of Pakistan's polio cases have been detected.

Mobs burned a village health centre, blocked a highway and pelted cars with stones. Medical workers were harassed and threatened.

A woman vaccinator and two policemen escorting the polio team were also shot dead in separate incidents last year.

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