Posted by Bart Signal

The network of female vaccinating teams credited with bringing polio to the brink of extinction in Pakistan will next month be brought to bear on measles in the country's first nationwide blitz against the virus in five years.

Health officials believe the community teams credited with turning around Pakistan's campaign against polio in some of its most stubborn haunts can have a similar effect on other health problems.

Pakistan has used millions of dollars of polio donor funding to build a network of dedicated operations centres and health workers. Polio cases have fallen from 306 in 2014 to only four so far in 2018.

While Pakistan still has the polio virus circulating in the environment and has some time to go before it is declared polio free, health officials are starting to look at other potential uses of the network they have put in place.

One of the most successful parts of the anti-polio campaign has been the recruitment of tens of thousands of largely female community-based volunteers who vaccinate children in their own neighbourhoods.

The tactic was instrumental in overcoming distrust of vaccination, amid conspiracy theories that the drops were harmful, or even a Western plot to sterilise Muslims. The polio eradication campaign involves door-to-door mass vaccinations several times a year.

Over time the workers have built up invaluable trust with the local people and knowledge of the children in their areas, said Dr Rana Safdar, coordinator of the national Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) for polio eradication.

He said: “These people really understand the population they are surveying. We are at a stage where we can make use of this intervention for broader service delivery on a number of accounts.”

The volunteers are already involved in routine immunisation for diseases other than polio and have increased coverage rates, but in mid-October will be used for the first time for a nationwide, 12-day measles campaign.

While Pakistan's high profile polio campaign is hailed for its recent success, efforts against measles have faltered and cases more than doubled last year.

World Health Organisation standards suggest 95 per cent coverage is needed to prevent an outbreak, but Pakistan has routine immunisation rates of 68 per cent.

Measles immunisations are not carried out door-to-door, but community teams will use their neighbourhood knowledge to mobilise families to take their children for injections at health centres.