Pakistan has launched a nationwide polio vaccination drive to try to reach 38.7 million children and eradicate the paralyzing and potentially deadly virus in one of the last countries on Earth where it is found.
Nearly 260,000 volunteers and workers fanned out across Pakistan in an effort to vaccinate every child below the age of five in a week-long campaign, Pakistan's national coordinator on polio, Mohammad Safdar, said on April 9.
He said authorities hope a similar campaign will soon be launched in Pakistan's tribal regions.
"We're really very close to eradicating the disease," Safdar told Reuters, calling on Pakistani citizens to cooperate with the door-to-door effort.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, that suffers from endemic polio, a childhood virus that can cause paralysis or death.
In 2018, Pakistan has had just one polio case, which was reported last month, Safdar told Reuters. The number of cases has steadily declined since 2014, when 306 were reported. Last year, there were only eight cases, he said.
Efforts to eradicate the disease have been undermined by opposition from the Taliban and other Islamist militants, who claim that immunization is a foreign ploy to sterilize Muslim children or a cover for Western spies.
In January, gunmen killed a mother-and-daughter vaccination team working in the southwestern province of Balochistan, where the year's only case so far was later reported.
Three years earlier, 15 people were killed in a bombing by the Pakistani Taliban outside a polio vaccination center in Balochistan.
Polio teams on April 9 were working undeterred.
"Yes we feel threatened, but our work is like this," Bilquis Omar, who has served on a mobile vaccination team for the past six years in the southern port metropolis of Karachi, told Reuters.
"We are working for the children," she said.
Aziz Memon, who heads the Rotary Club's PolioPlus program that funds many of the immunization teams, said this year the drive was also making a renewed effort to reach migrants who come back and forth from Afghanistan.
"Mission number one is to get to zero cases and eradicate polio," Memon said.
A country must have no cases for three consecutive years to be declared free of polio by the World Health Organization.
Pakistan has to contend with extra suspicion of immunization drives because of the 2011 U.S. special forces raid inside the country that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, architect of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001.
A Pakistani doctor was accused of using a fake vaccination campaign to collect DNA samples that the CIA used to verify bin Laden's identity. The doctor remains jailed in Pakistan, convicted of waging war against the state.