Pakistan to resume polio campaign as COVID-19 cases decline

FILE - In this March 16, 2020 file photo, a health worker gives a polio vaccine to a child in Lahore, Pakistan. Pakistans army chief has told Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates that despite the challenge of COVID-19, Pakistan plans to restart polio vaccination campaigns across the country. The military said late Wednesday, June 10, that Gen. Qamer Javed Bajwa spoke by phone with Gates who has worked to try and eradicate polio worldwide. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary, File) (K.M. Chaudary, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan announced Tuesday it would resume vaccinations against polio next week, months after the drive against this crippling children’s disease was halted because the novel coronavirus had overwhelmed the country's health system.

The anti-polio campaign would last three days, from next Monday, with the plan to have about 800,000 children vaccinated, the officials said. Police departments have received requests to ensure the safety of the polio workers.

Rana Mohammad Safdar, who oversees anti-polio operations in the country, said polio workers would adhere to social distancing regulations while carrying out their duty.

The announcement comes after Pakistan's powerful army chief, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, told Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates last month that despite the challenge of COVID-19, the government planned to restart polio vaccinations across the country. Bajwa gave no date at the time.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the three countries in the world where polio — a disabling and life-threatening disease caused by the polio virus — is still endemic. The nonprofit Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped Pakistan and other places worldwide fight the disease.

The World Health Organization at a meeting in June reviewed the polio situation in Pakistan and elsewhere and extended travel restrictions, initially enforced in 2014, that require people to get vaccinated against polio a month before traveling to Pakistan.

Pakistan had hoped to eliminate the disease by 2018, when only 12 cases were reported. But there was a surge in new cases the following year. Since January, Pakistan has reported 58 new polio cases from various parts of the country, including the northwestern region bordering Afghanistan.

The Taliban and other militants regularly stage attacks on polio teams and security forces escorting them,a s well as vaccination centers and health workers because they claim the anti-polio drive is part of an alleged Western conspiracy to sterilize children or collect intelligence. The attacks on polio teams increased after it was revealed that a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign was used as a ruse by the CIA in the hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos in 2011 in Pakistan.

Pakistan has had more than 253,000 cases of the coronavirus, including 5,320 deaths, since the first infection was detected in February.

On Tuesday, it reported 1,979 cases — a substantial decrease in daily infections since May, when the lockdown was eased, causing a surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths.