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[PESHAWAR] Health authorities in Pakistan hope that a programme to promote child vaccination will do away with misconceptions about the oral polio vaccine (OPV) in the country's Swat district, and create a demand for immunisation.

The programme, called The Awakening, is one of five projects awarded US$10,000 by the Southern Vaccine Advocacy Challenge — established and supported by the Ethical, Social and Cultural Programme of Canada's Sandra Rotman Centre — to educate developing countries about the benefits of immunisation.

It will work in areas  of the Swat district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to encourage immunisation against eight diseases.

The area "was controlled by the Taliban until 2009 and health workers seldom dare to visit", Erfaan Hussein Babak, director of the programme, said in a press release. "The population has suffered greatly over the years and the child mortality rate from the preventable diseases [such as polio, measles and hepatitis] is distressingly high."

Close to half of the children in parts of the district are not available for vaccinations, Babak told SciDev.Net. "The majority of them live in the mountains and are not aware of the significance of immunisation."

"We have formed village health committees and plan to hold stage dramas in schools [and] broadcast programmes from local FM radios to create awareness about the importance of vaccination among the people," he said.

Babak added that project has also been holding awareness sessions with the local population, especially mothers.

"Mothers should be sensitised [to the fact] that vaccination will prevent their kids from [getting] diseases. One we educate women there would be no looking  back in achieving 100 per coverage," he said.

Jan Baz Afridi, head of the government's Expanded Programme on Immunisation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, said the Swat district saw "22 cases in 2009 due to Taliban's opposition to oral polio vaccination" but added that there were no reported cases since February 2010.

He said that the Taliban considered the vaccination a tool by the United States to render the recipients infertile and impotent and cut the population of the Muslims.

Babak said the programme will also target ill-founded religious beliefs with the help of local clerics and prayer leaders.

"The people believe the religious leaders, therefore, we are sensitising them to pave the way for smooth-sailing of vaccination", he said.

Pakistan is one of only three countries, alongside Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio is still endemic. Last year there were 198 reported cases in Pakistan.

The Southern Vaccine Advocacy Challenge awards coincided with the World Immunisation Week (21–28 April). Other awardees include science cafes in local languages aimed at women in Uganda; promotion of pneumonia vaccines in Egypt and human papillomavirus vaccines in El Salvador; and fighting HIV/AIDS stigma in South Africa.

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