Thirteen southern districts critical for polio eradication - WHO

KABUL, 25 January 2010 (IRIN) - Successful anti-polio action depends on vaccinators being able to reach and immunize every under-five child in 13 volatile districts in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Farah, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).

“These 13 districts are high priority areas and if we succeed in fighting the virus there, we will eradicate polio in the country,” Tahir Pervaiz Mir, WHO’s polio eradication officer in Afghanistan, told IRIN.

“The virus is localized and we want to finish the job at the earliest [opportunity] and not allow it to spread beyond the southern region,” he said.

About 84 percent of Afghanistan is polio-free but the disease remains virulent in the 13 districts, where health workers have little or no access.

Most of the 38 polio cases in 2009 were reported in the south, though one case each was reported in the provinces of Kapisa, Ghor, Nangarhar and Nuristan.

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease which affects mostly under-five children through the oral-faecal route and in some cases causes permanent paralysis, according to WHO.

New vaccine

Owing to its “professional and dedicated anti-polio activities” Afghanistan in December was the first country globally to use a new polio vaccine which is believed to be 30 percent more effective, WHO’s Mir said.

The new bivalent vaccine is specifically made for poliovirus types one and three which are circulating in the country. Type two has not been reported globally since 1999, according to health officials.

“With this new vaccine we feel more confident and would be able to defeat polio here,” Abdul Qayum Pokhla, director of the health department in Kandahar, told IRIN, adding that about 2.8 million children received the bivalent vaccine in the southern provinces on 15-17 December 2009.

In order to ensure polio eradication and immunize newborn children, the trivalent vaccine will also be used in the four nationwide and four sub-national immunization campaigns in 2010, WHO said.

“Letters of support”

The new and more efficient vaccine has strengthened health workers’ technical capacity to wipe out poliomyelitis from Afghanistan.

“We need mouths [into which] to drop the OPV [oral polio vaccine],” said WHO’s Mir.

He said “letters of support” from the insurgents’ leadership have enabled vaccinators to access children in areas controlled or influenced by the Taliban.

Donors have also been generous and there is no dearth of resources, health officials acknowledge.

However, there are still several major challenges ahead, including parents’ poor awareness about immunization, recurrent armed hostilities in polio-prone areas, population movements, and cultural factors.

“Most of the vaccinators are male and when they knock on doors during immunization campaigns only the men bring small children for vaccination, but if men are not at home women do not take the very young… to vaccinators due to social traditions - and these are the children we are failing to vaccinate,” said Mir, adding that communities must help vaccinators reach every under-five child. 

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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