The Southwestern city of Quetta in Pakistan has started a special five-day immunization campaign last Monday for children under age 5 after a rare strain of the virus has been detected in sewage samples.
According to local officials, they had recruited Muslim clerics to promote the immunizations covering 400,000 kids, amid past programs being met with resistance — even violence — by extremists.
Pakistan is one of three countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, to have endemic polio, a once-prevalent childhood virus that can lead to paralysis or even death.
Syed Faisal Ahmed, coordinator of the local Emergency Operation Center, said in a Reuters report that religious leaders in mosques located in Baluchistan province, whose capital is Quetta, were requesting people in their sermons to administer anti-polio drops to their children.
Rare Polio Strain Spotted
"We have achieved major goals in combating polio disease, but still we have to strive more to declare Pakistan a polio-free country," said Ahmed, citing that the country revealed a record low of 19 polio cases in 2016, only one of which was logged in the said rural area.
According to the official, this new campaign comes on the heels of the appearance of the rare Type 2 strain of the disease in sewage samples that the World Health Organization (WHO) took in November. The WHO disclosed the findings last week.
A human case of the Type 2 polio virus is yet to be reported in more than 10 years, but it has already been incorporated in the vaccine as a precautionary measure. Type 1 remains the more common type of the condition.
In the past, immunization efforts were impeded by Islamist militants. Back in January, 15 people perished outside a vaccination center in Quetta after a suicide bombing attack claimed by the Taliban group as well as the Jundullah, another militant faction.
Pakistani militants have accused the immunization campaigns as a cover for Western-orchestrated spying.
In the case of the late al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, considered the chief architect of the 2001 U.S. attacks, a doctor is believed to have helped the CIA track him down through the use of a fake immunization drive that collects DNA samples.
Bin Laden died in the Pakistani Abbottabad town in a covert operation of the U.S. special forces back in 2011. A year after, a Pakistani court sentenced Dr. Shakil Afridi, an alleged U.S. facilitator, to 33 years of jailtime due to charges of being a member of the militant group Lashkar-e-Islam.
While the sentence was eventually overturned, the doctor remains in jail on charges of murder tied to a patient’s death.
In August last year, Nigeria — a nation ravaged by polio just two years before — saw the comeback of the virus with reports of two children left paralyzed after contracting the wild poliovirus in the northeastern Borno state. The development nixed hopes of soon declaring Africa polio-free.
"The overriding priority now is to rapidly immunize all children around the affected area and ensure that no other children succumb to this terrible disease," said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for the continent.
Photo: CDC Global | Flickr