Islamabad: Cricket star Shahid Afridi was on Saturday roped in by Pakistani authorities and UNICEF to boost an anti-polio campaign in the tribal belt in the wake of a ban imposed on vaccination campaigns by the Taliban in the lawless Waziristan region.
Afridi, who was born in a Pashtun family in the restive Khyber Agency bordering Afghanistan, will serve as a "Polio Champion" for a renewed drive to eradicate the crippling disease. He is already a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
"This disease cannot deter us and we will defeat it," Afridi told a gathering at a function organised here to announce his commitment to the polio eradication initiative.
"I have faced many tough opponents and we can overcome all challenges by having faith in Allah," he said.
Afridi pointed out that there were virtually no polio cases in Muslim countries other than Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"I will do my best to take forward the message (of eradicating polio) to every family in Pakistan," he said.
Pakistan is among a handful of countries where polio continues to be prevalent.
The government`s efforts to eradicate polio suffered a setback last month when powerful Taliban factions in North and South Waziristan banned vaccination campaigns till the US halts drone strikes in the tribal belt.
The Taliban have claimed that Western powers were running a spy network in the tribal belt in the guise of the polio vaccination campaign.
They cited the case of Shakeel Afridi, the doctor arrested by Pakistani authorities for conducting a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA track Osama bin Laden before he was killed in Abbottabad last year.
The UNICEF has estimated that 80,000 children would suffer if the anti-polio campaign is stopped in South Waziristan alone.
Last year, Pashtuns accounted for nearly 77 per cent of all polio cases though the group makes up only 15 per cent of Pakistan`s population.
To help counter the opposition from the militants, Afridi will be the star of a nationwide mass media campaign, including radio and television spots, billboards and posters, that will be launched on July 9 to support the next national immunisation days during July 16-18.
One of the television spots features Afridi speaking in Pashto and urging people to ensure that children receive the polio drops.
Authorities plan to vaccinate over 34 million children under five years during the upcoming drive.
Shahnaz Wazir Ali, the focal person for the Prime Minister`s monitoring cell for polio, said: "We couldn`t be more delighted to have Shahid Afridi join the polio eradication team in Pakistan.
"He is a true Pakistani hero and will help us deliver important messages to some of the hardest to reach areas of the country".
Ali said Pakistan had recorded 198 polio cases last year, up from 144 in 2010.
A total of 22 polio cases were recorded in 13 districts in the first six months of this year, down from 58 cases in 24 districts during the same period in 2011, she said.