The United Nations is moving swiftly to vaccinate 1.5 million children after a polio case was detected in an area of north-eastern Afghanistan which had been free of the disease for more than a decade.
The polio case was identified in the Imam Sahib district of Kunduz province. It had been assumed that the source of the virus was in neighbouring Tajikistan, which is currently in the midst of a large outbreak, but now it appears that it may have been the result of cross-border population movement from Pakistan.
For three days starting this Sunday, 1.5 million children under the age of five will be vaccinated in five adjacent provinces: Badakhshan, Takhar, Kunduz, Baghlan and Balkh.
To ensure that no child is left unvaccinated, house-to-house visits will be carried out, mobile clinics will be set up, fixed teams will be established in hospitals and immunization posts will be created at border crossing points.
“Afghanistan’s northern regions have been polio-free for some 10 years, making it all the more important to contain possible spill-over effects from outbreaks in neighbouring areas,” said Peter Crowley, UNICEF Representative in the country.
Polio, sometimes called poliomyelitis, is a highly infectious and sometimes fatal disease, and is often marked by acute flaccid paralysis among sufferers. It has been eradicated from much of the world, but experience shows that the virus can travel far relatively rapidly.
It has been eradicated in most parts of the world, but remains endemic in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria.
Peter Graaff, WHO’s Representative to Afghanistan, stressed that even beyond next week’s mass immunization campaign, surveillance must be stepped up in the area.
“We will also need to have ever-stronger cross-border coordination mechanisms, which include synchronizing vaccination activities, data-sharing and joint supervision, building on what already exists between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he said.
Every year, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health and its partners carry out at least four nationwide and four sub-national immunization campaigns in the country’s southern, south-eastern and eastern regions. Each national drive targets some 8 million children.
In June, WHO announced that it had immunized more than 1.2 million children after an outbreak in Tajikistan. The agency also vaccinated more than 1 million children in Tajikistan in May.