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Kabul Sees First Polio Case Since Fall of Taliban


FILE - Ellyn Ogden, USAID's worldwide polio eradication coordinator, immunizes a child during a festive kick-off event for a polio vaccination campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan.

FILE - Ellyn Ogden, USAID's worldwide polio eradication coordinator, immunizes a child during a festive kick-off event for a polio vaccination campaign in Kabul, Afghanistan.

A three-year-old girl has become the first person to be diagnosed with polio in the Afghan capital since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, when U.S. forces drove out the militants.

An Afghan health ministry spokesman said Tuesday the girl in eastern Kabul is partially paralyzed after catching the crippling disease.

Authorities immediately kicked off a vaccination campaign in the eastern part of the city, branching out into the entire capital.

“The case in Kabul, as with all the polio cases we have had in Afghanistan lately, are genetically linked to Peshawar valley," explained Per Engebak, UNICEF’s polio team leader in Islamabad. Engebak says the polio case in Kabul is directly linked to neighboring Pakistan.

Peshawar is located in northern Pakistan, not far from the Afghan border. He said the cross-border infections would continue without robust controls.

Polio is an acute viral disease that spreads from person to person through contaminated food or drink. Thousands are typically infected for every person that develops paralysis.

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Click to enlarge

In 2013, there were 93 recorded cases of polio paralysis in Pakistan. Afghanistan had 14 cases.

Attempts to eradicate the disease in Pakistan have failed in the face of constant deadly attacks by Islamist militants against vaccination workers, who accuse them of being Western spies or part of a plot to sterilize Muslims.

Many of the fears were raised after a Pakistani doctor was imprisoned for helping U.S. intelligence agents run a fake hepatitis vaccination program aimed at locating then-fugitive al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, who was killed by American forces in 2011.

According to Engebak, a massive security effort is underway to immunize the population in Pakistan’s northern Peshawar area, considered one of the largest reservoirs of the disease in the world.

“They sent out more than 4,000 police on the streets to provide proper protection to all the health personnel that carried out these campaigns, and that seems to have done the trick, and we didn’t have a single casualty," Engebak said.

Altogether 5,000 security personnel were mobilized in one day to secure the general immunization campaign, which included the polio vaccine.

Engebak says some 780 mosques in the Peshawar area now support the immunization campaign.

However, health workers as yet cannot safely reach thousands of children living in the tribal northwest provinces of North and South Waziristan.

Pakistan government official Tahir Shah said there was an attack on Monday against a polio vaccination team in the Khyber tribal region of northern Pakistan near the Afghan border.
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    Sharon Behn

    Sharon Behn is a foreign correspondent working out of Voice of America’s headquarters in Washington D.C  Her current beat focuses on political, security and humanitarian developments in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Follow Sharon on Twitter and on Facebook.

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