28 March 2006
Afghanistan, one of only four countries where polio is still endemic, began vaccinating millions of children yesterday in what it hoped would be the start of a final push to eradicate the disease.
Tens of thousands of health workers and volunteers across the country kicked off a three-day campaign expected to immunise more than 7.2 million children under the age of five against the crippling disease, officials said.
The number of polio cases in Afghanistan had steadily declined from 137 in 1997, when the immunisation campaign was launched, to just five in 2004, health ministry advisor Abdullah Fahim told AFP.
However the number of cases increased to seven last year, although they were localised to Helmand and Uruzgan provinces.
“It is a good sign that the virus is contained to these two provinces,” Fahim said.
The reasons the disease was lingering in these areas included the influx of people from neighbouring Pakistan, where polio was also endemic, and violence that had hampered immunisation programmes in past years, he said.
The violence is mostly linked to an insurgency launched by remnants of the the Taliban after the regime was toppled from government in 2001.
However, the past four immunisation drives, which are carried out twice annually, were able to have 100 percent reach in the provinces, Fahim said.
War-ravaged and destitute Afghanistan suffers a multitude of health problems, but its fight against the crippling disease is important from a global perspective, he said.
“It is a disabling disease. We have a lot of killing diseases in Afghanistan but we don’t want to be a reservoir for a disease that the world wants to eliminate,” he said. Polio is endemic in Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative spearheaded by the World Health Organization.