Polio risk from two directions

KABUL, 6 October 2010 (IRIN) - Hopes for a polio-free northern Afghanistan have been dashed after a case was reported in the northern Kunduz Province in August, almost a decade since the last one.

The crippling virus has been eliminated in most parts of the landlocked country, except in the insecure south and eastern provinces.

Eighteen polio cases have been confirmed this year: 15 in the southern Kandahar, Helmand, Farah and Urozgan provinces; two in eastern Nangarhar Province; and now a 13-month-old boy in Kunduz.

Initially, health officials assumed the virus could have migrated from neighbouring Tajikistan where more than 450 polio cases have been reported this year.

However, laboratory tests pointed to another direction.

“The virus is closely linked with the current circulation in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] of Pakistan, a probable indication of importation from there,” Arshad Quddus, an official of the UN World Health Organization (WHO), told IRIN.

The Kunduz boy has been permanently paralyzed, officials said. It is now believed he was infected in Pakistan from where his family returned to Kunduz Province earlier this year.

At least 69 polio cases were reported in Pakistan from January to September 2010.

Millions of Afghan refugees live in Pakistan and tens of thousands of people move across the 2,400km porous border every day.

Risks from Tajikistan

A major outbreak of wild polio virus has been reported in Tajikistan, which has spilled over to Turkmenistan and Russia, according to UN agencies.

“We are gravely concerned about the spread of polio virus from Tajikistan to Afghanistan,” Suraya Dalil, the acting Health Minister of Afghanistan, said during the launch of a three-day nationwide polio immunization campaign on 3 October.

The campaign, funded by UN agencies and other donors, targeted 7.8 million children in all 34 provinces.

The situation in Tajikistan as well as the reported polio case in Kunduz Province have resulted in enhanced border surveillance and immunization, officials said.

“We vaccinate every person – children and adults – who crosses the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border,” Nabi Azeem, Kunduz’s health director, told IRIN, adding that health posts had been established at several border points.

The type 1 polio virus in Tajikistan is linked to a strain also seen in India’s Uttar Pradesh Province, health officials said.

In Afghanistan, types 1 and 3 have been in circulation for which bivalent oral polio vaccines have been used since December 2009.

Afghanistan has been struggling to wipe out polio with several rounds of immunization every year. War, lack of access to every child and low awareness among families are the major obstacles towards eradication, experts say.  

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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