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Thousands Defy Threats To Join Anti-Polio Drive In Pakistan

Pakistani police escort a team of polio health workers during a polio vaccination campaign in Quetta on February 15.
Pakistani police escort a team of polio health workers during a polio vaccination campaign in Quetta on February 15.

More than 100,000 health workers across Pakistan stepped up efforts on February 15 to eliminate the polio virus from a country that is one of its last bastions despite continued threats to vaccination teams.

Upward of 70 percent of the world’s polio cases are in Pakistan, which, along with Afghanistan are the only two countries where the virus is now endemic.

"We have intensified our efforts," said Asher Ali, a project manager in the southern city of Karachi for Rotary International Pakistan, one of the groups involved in the effort. "If we take normal action, it will never be eradicated."

The number of polio cases in Pakistan is declining, with just 54 cases of wild polio virus reported last year, down more than 80 percent from 2014, when the country suffered a large spike in cases.

The latest immunization push aims to vaccinate every child in the country by the end of May.

Many recent efforts to rid Pakistan of polio have been thwarted by attacks on polio workers. The militants behind the attacks say the health teams are spies for the West or that the vaccines are intended to sterilize children.

Last month, a suicide bomber killed at least 15 people outside a polio eradication center in the restive city of Quetta, with two militant groups claiming responsibility for the attack.

Leaders of the national anti-polio campaign and security personnel said attacks on the immunization teams have declined in the face of raising community awareness and coordination with security forces.

"When I started work, I was frightened," said community health worker Zubaira Bibi, standing near police assigned to accompany her team in Karachi. "Now I'm not scared. People in the area know us now."

The image of vaccination suffered by association after a CIA-employed Pakistani doctor used the guise of a vaccination campaign to spy on Osama bin Laden in the months leading to the U.S. raid that killed the Al-Qaeda leader.

Some parents still don’t allow their children to be vaccinated.

"There are refusals," said Rehana Bibi, who wore a veil during her day's work visiting homes in the Sultanabad neighborhood in Karachi. "But we try to convince them that there is no harm in giving drops to children."

Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi and Krista Mahr in Islamabad for Reuters