Pakistan launches polio vaccination drives

To reverse an alarming surge of polio cases, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, is launching an emergency drive to immunize 32 million children.

Under the plan, to be launched this week, police and paramilitary soldiers will protect teams of vaccinators in some of the most dangerous areas of the country, according to the Guardian.

Bill Gates, who met Zardari in Washington last week, pledged to fund the effort with a $65 million donation from the Gates Foundation.

The polio crisis in Pakistan is one of the last hurdles in a campaign by the World Health Organization that has lasted for 23 years. In other areas, doctors are close to eradicating the crippling disease, but in Pakistan, infection rates have actually gone up by 65 percent, the Guardian reports.

A major cause behind the increase was last summer’s floods, which displaced millions across the countryside. The principal cause, however, is thought to be the war with the Taliban in the northwest.

With missile strikes and Taliban attacks, vaccinations in the area have all but stopped. Fighters have killed health workers and Mullahs have denounced the vaccine as part of an anti-Muslim plot to sterilize children.

The northwest tribal belt accounted for half of all infections in Pakistan, according to the Guardian. It is worried that the disease will spread from there to places where it was already thought to be eradicated.

In Karachi, a city of 18 million, health officials had reported no infections but, in December, two cases were found. The new cases were seen as disaster because it is believed that for every polio case found in Pakistan, there are 200 that have yet to be found.