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Afghan Warring Factions to Stop Fighting to Allow Start of Polio Vaccination Campaign


The warring factions in Afghanistan say they will heed a call by the United Nations to stop fighting so aid workers can begin a three-day polio vaccination campaign. The Taliban, the Afghan army and international military forces say they will halt their offensives Sunday, to coincide with International Peace Day. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Over the next three days, thousands of health workers will fan out across six volatile provinces in southern Afghanistan. Their aim is to vaccinate 1.8 million newborns and children under five against polio.

The UN-led polio immunization campaign was briefly suspended last week following the deaths of two Afghan doctors working for the World Health Organization.

A spokeswoman for W.H.O.'s Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Sona Bari, tells VOA U.N. aid agencies and local communities decided it was important to go ahead with the campaign for the sake of the children.

She says she hopes and believes the warring factions will abide by the U.N.'s call for a so-called "Days of Tranquility" and allow the vaccinators to do their job in safety.

"The 21st of September is an important day because it is International Peace Day and we have traditionally used this opportunity to say let us have everyone pause and help us access the children," said Bari. "After that said, I understand from our team leader there that we do expect probably slightly lower coverage in some of those areas just so that we can respect the measures we need to take to protect our people."

Afghanistan is one of four countries with endemic polio. The others are India, Pakistan and Nigeria. The World Health Organization has confirmed 18 cases of polio in Afghanistan this year. Most occurred in Southern and Eastern regions where insurgent violence is the strongest and health workers are most at risk.

Bari says Afghanistan is the closest of the four endemic countries in stopping the spread of the crippling polio virus. But she acknowledges vaccinators, so far, have been unable to reach about 100,000 children in the south because of the insecurity.

"So it is not a huge number. This is a nation with seven million children under the age of five. So that is not a significant obstacle," she added. "Afghanistan can be addressed. They are very close and with the kind of determination that we have seen this week, this is an area where they are very optimistic in terms of stopping polio transmission."

About 350,000 children a year have become paralyzed from polio since 1988, when the World Health Organization began its Global Eradication Campaign. Most of the world is now polio free.

This year, the W.H.O. reports more than 1,200 cases of polio globally, more than half of these are in Nigeria.

The World Health Organization says Nigeria is the major stumbling block in efforts to wipe this crippling disease off the face of the earth.

W.H.O. spokeswoman Bari says the last two polio immunization rounds in these Nigerian States failed to reach all the children targeted because the operations were not well planned. She says vaccinators lack proper training.

She notes some parents, who are reluctant to immunize their children fearing the vaccine could cause sickness or sterility, hide their children during these campaigns.

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