ISLAMABAD (AP) — The World Health Organization said Friday that three more polio cases have surfaced in Pakistan, bringing the number of new cases to 220, a record figure that authorities blame on attacks by insurgents targeting vaccination teams.
The WHO statement came as many nations observed World Polio Day in order to raise awareness about the highly contagious virus, which is transmitted in unsanitary conditions but is easily fended off with a vaccine. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries where polio, which can cause paralysis and death, remains endemic.
Dr. Elias Durry, who heads WHO polio eradication efforts in Pakistan, said Friday that out of 220 cases most were detected from January to October in the county's northwest, where the Pakistani Taliban have fought to prevent immunizations since 2012, killing about 60 workers and police escorting polio teams across Pakistan.
The Pakistani Taliban accuse polio workers of acting as spies for the United States and say the vaccine makes boys sterile. The insurgents began targeting vaccination teams after it was revealed that a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, administered hepatitis vaccinations in the northwestern city of Abbottabad as a cover for a CIA-backed effort to obtain DNA samples from a home where Osama bin Laden was later killed during a 2011 raid by U.S. Navy SEALs.
In June Pakistan launched a sweeping military offensive in North Waziristan, a tribal region along the Afghan border that has long been a safe haven for the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The operation has displaced over 800,000 people.
Durry said that out of three new cases, two were detected in the southern port city of Karachi and the third was reported from the remote southwestern town of Zhob, near to militant strongholds in the South Waziristan tribal region.
He told The Associated Press that Pakistan on Saturday would launch a fresh anti-polio campaign in the northwest to reach children who have missed out on previous efforts because of the insurgents.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meanwhile observed World Polio Day by meeting with children affected by the virus in the capital Islamabad. A government statement said Sharif administered polio vaccine drops to children and pledged more resources to battle the disease. Earlier this month the number of new cases per year surpassed the previous record of 199 in 2001.
In a statement, Rotary International this week said it would spend $2.7 million in Pakistan to fight polio, aiming to "end the disabling viral disease worldwide by 2018."