The World Health Organization is conducting a massive polio immunization campaign along the dangerous Afghan-Pakistani border. Over a three-day period, WHO hopes to immunize 16-million children under age five against the crippling disease.
Reaching children in the remote, dangerous border area will be difficult and risky. The World Health Organization says thousands of volunteers will go house-to-house to immunize millions of children against polio.
A spokeswoman for WHO's Polio Eradication Campaign, Sona Bari, says health workers aim to stamp out a flare-up of the crippling disease and prevent its spread. Despite the insecurity in the region, she says, she is confident of success.
"Given the difficult situation in Afghanistan, given the security issues along the border area, it is not very easy to access children," she explained. "There are lots of nomadic populations. There is refugee movement. There are areas that are difficult to access geographically, but also because of security reasons. Given all that, they have made tremendous progress, and that has really been because of a strong political commitment on the part of those states."
The World Health Organization reported five new cases of polio in Afghanistan and two in Pakistan this year. Afghanistan and Pakistan are among four countries still considered polio-endemic, along with Nigeria and India.
Bari says even one case of polio in a country is a problem, because the virus can circulate inside the country. And, it can travel across borders, spreading the disease to other nations, as well. She recalls northern Nigeria suspended polio immunizations two years ago. She says the virus subsequently spread, re-infecting more than 20 previously polio-free countries.
"Polio, unlike measles or small pox is not a visible disease. It can be silently carried by many, many people. So, for every case that we see, most likely there are 200 people infected," continued Bari. "But, you or I may be infected with polio and not actually manifest any symptoms of it, but be passing it on. So, when you look at those small numbers relatively, you have to consider that there are several hundred behind that, if not several thousand. And, if you do not get vaccines to every single child, the virus can still circulate."
When WHO began its polio eradication campaign in 1988, there were 350,000 reported cases of the disease. This has gone down to 225 reported new cases this year, 169 of them in Nigeria.
WHO has missed its goal of ridding the world of polio by the end of 2005, but it says it is optimistic this target will be reached by the end of 2007. It says it hopes this current immunization drive will stamp out the disease in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That would leave India and Nigeria as the only two countries where polio remains endemic.