Pakistan is seeking to ramp up its polio vaccination efforts and reach at least 800,000 children in a span of five days, as the country was forced to halt its anti-polio drive in March due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

Rana Muhammad Safdar, Pakistan's top polio official said, "The drive will target specific high-risk areas in all four provinces." He also added that vaccinators have been provided with protective equipment to shield them against the coronavirus and ensure the safety of health care workers.

Fear of Resurgence of Polio

The disruption of the drive has raised fears of a spike in polio cases in Pakistan, which, along with neighboring 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 Organization. Pakistan has thus far registered 265,082 cases of novel coronavirus infection and 5,599 deaths.

Polio vaccination
Representational Picture Reuters

Azra Fazal Pechuho, health minister in the province of Sindh, told media that field staff had been given extensive training to ensure child safety. Vaccinators have been instructed to minimize contact and ask parents to hold children for oral polio drops, the Emergency Operations Centre for Polio in Sindh province said in a statement.

Backlash in Conservative Areas

UNICEF warned in April that disruptions in vaccination drives could create pathways to disastrous outbreaks in 2020 and beyond. While the COVID-19 poses the greatest threat this year, vaccination drives in Pakistan have previously faced numerous challenges.

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

Mobs burned a village health center, 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.

(With inputs from agencies)