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Violence in Southern Afghanistan Threatens Polio Immunizations


The World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. children's fund (UNICEF) are warning that fighting in southern Afghanistan is threatening efforts to immunize millions of children against polio. The agencies are appealing to the Afghan government, military groups and anti-government elements to agree on so-called Days of Tranquility so the polio campaign can go ahead. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

Afghanistan is one of only four remaining polio-endemic countries in the world. Last year, the country was on the verge of being polio-free. The World Health Organization and the U.N. children's fund began a nationwide polio immunization campaign on November 19. The aim was to immunize all children under age five against the crippling disease.

WHO polio spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer says a main focus of the campaign is to stop a polio outbreak in the country's southern region. But, he says, increased fighting there is threatening to derail this effort.

"The consequences? We have already seen it,” he said. “Last year, four cases of polio. This year 29 cases of polio. This is a disease which spreads very rapidly and which is very unforgiving. You have to remember this is a disease for which there is no cure. Once you have polio paralysis, you have it for life. So, the only way is to prevent it by the safe and effective polio vaccine."

The World Health Organization began a global polio eradication campaign in 1988. Since then, the number of polio cases has been reduced by more than 99 percent.

WHO says circulation of the wild polio virus in Afghanistan must be completely interrupted. Otherwise, it warns, polio will continue to cripple children in Afghanistan and may even spread to neighboring countries that are now polio-free.

That is why, Rosenbauer says, it is so important for the Kabul overnment and warring factions to agree to Days of Tranquility so health workers can safely reach the children that need to be immunized.

"So, if there are agreed days when there is no conflict, then that gives our vaccinators a window of opportunity at the district level to go in and do a mini-immunization campaign, if you like," he added.

Rosenbauer says tens of thousands of vaccinators, both men and women, from local communities have been recruited to go house to house, village to village, to immunize every child under age five. He says the campaign is planned to run throughout next year.