Pakistan aims to vaccinate 40 million children against polio over the next five days as part of a massive public health campaign, according to Al Jazeera.
Thousands of health workers will travel with security teams to remaining polio hotspots, including along the border with Afghanistan, the only other country that continues to contend with polio. The health workers will provide vitamin supplements in addition to the vaccines to promote general health.
This is the country’s first vaccination drive since August 2020, when a dip in COVID-19 cases allowed health workers to conduct home-to-home visits. While COVID-19 cases have recently surged in Pakistan, with nearly 2,000 new cases and 32 deaths on Monday, the country has been trying to eliminate polio for years and likely figured it can no longer wait to vaccinate remaining communities.
Polio vaccination workers have been attacked in the past by militants skeptical of their intent, which increased following US military efforts disguised as a vaccine campaign, according to the Associated Press.
The compressed timeline of the latest vaccination campaign reflects both the urgency behind efforts to eradicate polio and the ongoing threat of COVID-19. The international health community has been trying to eradicate polio for decades and had been closing in on the milestone when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Since then, public health campaigns have been disrupted for a range of illnesses and health care workers have been diverted away from vaccination drives.
During its peak in the 1940s and 1950s, before a vaccine was discovered, polio paralyzed or killed around half a million people annually. Vaccine drives gradually pushed down this number but polio cases hovered in the hundreds of thousands per year for decades. In 1988, public health groups launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which has since led efforts that caused polio cases to decline by 99.9%. In 2020, Nigeria was declared free of polio.
The lessons learned from this enormous undertaking have informed the response to COVID-19 — from governments promoting social distancing and hygiene to the global race for a vaccine.
In the months ahead, the public health infrastructure established by polio eradication will help guide countries throughout COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.