News / Asia

Polio Immunization Campaign Begins in Afghanistan

The World Health Organization, UN Children's Fund and their partners are planning to immunize 1.5 million children under age five against polio in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunduz. The 3-day campaign, which begins Sunday, aims to stop further transmission of this crippling disease.

Only one new polio case has been detected in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunduz. But, that is enough to draw the attention of health care workers. This region has been polio-free for over a decade.

And, health experts explain if this one case of polio is not stopped, this highly contagious crippling disease could quickly spread.

Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for WHO's Polio Eradication Initiative, tells VOA whenever a virus is detected, it is critical to rapidly conduct an immunization campaign to stop the disease from regaining a foothold.

"We genetically analyze every polio virus that we isolate so we know where it came from. It came from across the border in Pakistan, in the tribal areas of Pakistan and it really underscores the danger of this disease across these two countries, Pakistan, of course, also being an endemic country," Rosenbauer said. "There is a lot of population movement and people who may be infected with the virus, but they themselves do not show any symptoms, so they are healthy. So, they will not know that they have the virus, that they are infected with it. They travel with it and re-infect other areas. So, that is what makes this particular virus-it is one of the reasons why it is so dangerous."

WHO's global polio eradication campaign began in 1988. At that time, this paralytic disease affected an estimated 350,000 children in 125 countries.

Now most regions in the world are polio-free, with 638 cases of polio reported this year.

Afghanistan is one of four remaining countries where polio is endemic. The others are Pakistan, India and Nigeria. Major eradication efforts are ongoing in these countries.

In Afghanistan, the polio virus has been largely restricted to the conflict-ridden south. Rosenbauer says Afghanistan has run very successful immunization campaigns in these areas, so whenever there has been an importation of the virus, large-scale outbreaks have been prevented.

"They routinely do preventive immunization campaigns in polio-free areas of Afghanistan. They are very aware that until they finish the disease in the southern region that all areas of Afghanistan are at risk of polio," Rosenbauer added. "So, their strategy has been O.K. while we fight polio in the southern region, we need to make sure that other areas of Afghanistan are protected. So, this is not the first time that we have seen it. Of course, it is a worry and it needs to be responded to, but it is being responded to and hopefully, as in the past, it will prevent an outbreak."

The aid agencies are adopting a four-pronged approach to make sure every child in Kunduz is immunized against polio. They are carrying out house-to-house visits, setting up mobile clinics, establishing fixed teams in hospitals and setting up immunization posts at border crossing points.

In addition, WHO says surveillance in the area will be increased. The agency says synchronized vaccination campaigns will be held in Afghanistan and Pakistan. WHO says people in Pakistan's flood-stricken areas could be at high risk of getting polio.

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