AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN: Polio knows no borders

ISLAMABAD, 22 March 2007 (IRIN) - Beginning on Sunday, a mammoth campaign to vaccinate close to 20 million children under five years of age will get under way in Afghanistan and Pakistan, employing tens of thousands of vaccinators.

"This is a virus that does not respect borders," said Dr Rudolf Tangermann, a medical officer with the polio eradication initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. "These two countries cannot eradicate polio in isolation."

According to WHO, the world's success in eradicating polio depends on four countries where the virus remains endemic India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In 2006, there were 40 confirmed cases of polio in Pakistan and 31 in Afghanistan. This year, there have been no reported cases of polio in Afghanistan but six in Pakistan.

For eight-month old Hussein Ullah, living in the Tirrah sub-district of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan, the battle against polio has just begun.

Hussein's is the fifth of the six confirmed polio cases in Pakistan this year and the second in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP). These cases underscore the importance of cross-border eradication efforts and the importance of strong cooperation and political commitment between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tangermann said.

Authorities in both countries are well aware of their need to join forces to fight polio. During a 28 February Geneva meeting of governments, donors and international agencies leading the drive to eradicate polio, Pakistan's health minister Nasir Khan said "in terms of polio eradication, the two countries are one".

While across the border in Afghanistan, the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has already taken direct oversight of polio vaccinations, following a sharp increase in cases in the country's south in 2006.

"Communities on either side of the border are actually the same community," said Dr Nima Abid, head of WHO's eradication efforts for Pakistan. Mobile groups - such as nomads, refugees or returnees - frequently and seasonally move across the often porous frontier, she added.

Health experts consider the two countries as one epidemiological block, given the history of population movement over more than 2,400km of common border.

According to Abid, more than 600,000 children under five years of age were vaccinated while crossing the border in 2006 at two fixed cross border vaccination points located in Pakistan's NWFP and Balochistan provinces, with efforts now underway to increase that number by 50 percent with 10 fixed vaccination points.

This weekend, the Afghan government, in collaboration with its partners at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and WHO, will launch its first of four national immunisation drives (NIDS), targeting 7.3 million children nationwide.

In a parallel effort, on Tuesday Pakistan's government, along with the same partners, will target upwards of 12.5 million children in 37 of the country's 132 districts - the second of five sub-national immunisation days (SNDS) in 2007 to target those areas considered at particular high risk.

"From the Balochistan side to NWFP, almost all the border areas will be included in this campaign," Abid said, noting that they hoped to reach 35 percent of their nationwide target.

In addition to planning vaccination days together, including regular meetings and consultation, additional measures are being taken to immunise as many children as possible this year.  

Source: Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a project the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. IRIN is UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

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