More than 20,000 volunteers and health workers are making house calls to vaccinate children against polio in Afghanistan as part of a United Nations-backed campaign targeting nearly eight million children by the end of the year.
“We hope that religious scholars, community representatives, parents and ordinary people will help us achieve our target to eliminate polio from the region,” said Rahmathullah Kamwak, who heads the office of the UN World Health Organization (WHO) in the southern province of Kandahar.
He was speaking yesterday at an inauguration ceremony for a three-day campaign which will send 20,000 people door-to-door to administer two drops of the oral polio vaccine to children under the age of five in 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The scheme is part of a greater effort led by the Ministry of Public Health, with the support of WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other partners to reach 7.7 million children by year’s end.
There have been one dozen confirmed cases of polio in Afghanistan, mostly in the south where fighting has impeded the access of more than 100,000 children to health services.
In the country’s east, 13 volunteers taking part in vaccinations have been abducted by anti-Government forces in Kunar province, but the campaign has resumed there following a security assessment.
In addition to insecurity, continued movements of people between polio-endemic areas to polio-free areas pose a challenge to efforts to rid Afghanistan of polio, said Khushhal Khan Zaman, who heads WHO’s office in Jalalabad, in the country’s east.
Faizullah, 35, who works in a flour mill near Jalalabad, has three children who have benefited from the latest round of vaccinations.
“I don’t want to see my kids handicapped,” he said, noting that his youngest children are vaccinated against polio whenever there is a campaign.
Afghanistan, along with Pakistan, Nigeria and India, are the four countries where polio is still endemic.
Last month, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative –spearheaded by WHO, UNICEF and its partners – unveiled a new effort to eradicate polio and urged the international community to provide additional funds to reach this goal.
The Strategic Plan 2010-2012 aims to build on success in key endemic countries, such as Nigeria, where the number of polio cases have dropped by more than 99 per cent – from 312 cases last year to three in 2010.
Ten of the 15 previously polio-free African countries that were re-infected in 2009 have successfully stopped their outbreaks. They are Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic (CAR), Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Kenya, Togo and Uganda.