ISLAMABAD (Kyodo) -- Pakistan on Monday started a five-day national campaign for vaccinating nearly 40 million children against polio after a monthslong pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Faisal Sultan, the prime minister's aide on health, announced the launch of the campaign on Twitter saying, "Nationwide polio vaccination campaign starts today. Aiming to vaccinate 40 million children. A team of 275,000 persons will make this happen."
Pakistan and Afghanistan are the world's two last countries that continue to have polio cases. Nigeria, the other polio hotspot, was last month declared polio-free in a milestone for Africa in its successful fight against the disease.
Polio disease can paralyze its victims by infecting their nervous system. In some cases, it is also life-threatening. The paralysis is mostly irreversible.
There is no cure for the disease, but doctors say repeated immunization against the polio virus increases protection against it.
Pakistan witnessed a sharp spike in polio cases last year when 146 cases were reported, after a gradual decline in incidence over the previous years. As many as 73 cases have been reported so far this year, and the month-on-month figures are higher than last year.
Former health minister Zafar Mirza, who stepped down from office at the end of July, told Kyodo News that the 2019 spike was caused by unfounded rumors about children falling ill because of polio vaccine.
"This prompted about 1.5 million families to subsequently refuse vaccination because of which the government kept vaccination campaigns suspended for about seven months last year," he said.
Mirza said health authorities are still struggling with refusals to vaccinate children, although the number of such families has gone down to 300,000.
Vaccination campaigns had to be suspended again this year from March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smaller campaigns were held in some districts in July and August, before the launch of the latest nation-wide campaign.
"The scope of the ongoing campaign is much larger and we are looking to vaccinate all children less than 5 years of age through door-to-door visits by vaccinators across the country," a health official said.
Besides fake news targeting polio vaccination and objections by religious clergy, security has remained a major challenge for carrying out vaccination campaigns.
Mirza said 45 polio vaccinators and staff associated with vaccination teams have died in terror attacks, mostly by the Pakistan Taliban, since 2012. Two polio workers were killed in the last such attack in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province's Swabi district in January.
A lesser talked about challenge in Pakistan in its fight against polio is the emergence of 'vaccine-derived polio' virus cases.
"It's a sort of resurgence of Type 2 of polio virus that had earlier been eliminated," Mirza said. "It is now the hardest communication challenge facing the health authorities in a country where perceptions about the vaccine are already not good," he added.
A total of 52 vaccine-derived polio cases have been reported in Pakistan this year in addition to 73 other cases. Last year, 22 such cases were found.