Mass Pakistan pneumonia vaccination campaign launched

Doctor in Pakistan administers polio vaccine
Image caption The pneumococcal vaccine is initially due to be rolled out in Punjab province, then Sindh

Pakistan has become the first South Asian country to introduce a vaccine against a virulent form of pneumonia - one of the nation's biggest killers of children, officials say.

The pneumococcal vaccine will be given to five million children annually.

It is the largest roll-out of its kind following similar drives in Africa and Central America.

The programme - backed by the UN and a leading aid agency - was officially launched by PM Raja Pervaiz Ashraf.

Officials from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) say they do not expect the immunisation drive to suffer the same problems that have recently affected efforts to introduce a polio vaccine in the north of Pakistan.

In July, officials said that about 250,000 children in the tribal areas had not received a polio vaccine because of a Taliban-imposed ban.

The militants said vaccinations in North and South Waziristan were banned until the US ended drone strikes in the region.

Administering polio vaccines has been further complicated since the death of Osama Bin Laden in May last year by the fallout from the CIA's decision to use a fake vaccination programme - allegedly carried out by Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi - to confirm the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

'Important milestone'

Gavi officials say that because the vaccine against the pneumococcal form of pneumonia is administered routinely soon after birth - along with several other vaccines - it is much easier to deliver than the polio vaccine.

It is estimated that about 80,000 children die every year from pneumonia in Pakistan, and about a third of deaths are due to the pneumococcal form of the disease.

The vaccine is being delivered through a partnership between the Pakistan government, Gavi, the UN children's fund and the World Health Organization (WHO).

"The introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine represents an important milestone in the fight to reduce the heavy infant and child mortality burden facing Pakistan's families," Pakistan WHO representative Guido Sabatinelli said.

The pneumococcal vaccine is initially due to be rolled out in Punjab province, then Sindh and then the rest of the country. The plan is for the vaccine to be extended to Bangladesh next year.

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