How Coronavirus May Help the World’s Final Battle Against Polio

In one of the globe’s last polio-endemic countries, Pakistanis are finally realizing the importance of vaccines — in the absence of one for COVID-19.

Polio vaccinations 1
A child receives an oral polio vaccination at a bus terminal in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. (Sabrina Toppa)

Sabrina Toppa


May 12, 2020


8 min

In Karachi’s overcrowded slums, Sadia Shakeel, a 42-year-old polio worker, grabbed a mic and shouted over large crowds of shrieking children and their parents. “Don’t gather in large crowds! Keep your children inside!” Wearing a face mask, Shakeel added, “You have to wash your hands!”

In late March, after the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners suspended door-to-door polio vaccination campaigns to focus on COVID-19, polio workers such as Shakeel — who is the Karachi coordinator for Rotary International’s polio campaign — found themselves on the frontlines of Pakistan’s battle against the coronavirus. 

After years of Pakistani polio workers and their security teams facing hostility and violence — targeted killings have left more than 90 dead in the last decade — communities are finally welcoming and placing their trust in the public health advice and services over 265,000 polio workers deliver, especially in areas where vaccine hesitancy is entrenched. Other Pakistanis are finally understanding the importance of vaccines. 

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