November 22nd, 2006 06:25 EST
Afghanistan: UN agencies call on all sides in conflict to facilitate polio vaccination
United Nations agencies today called on the Afghan Government, military groups and anti-government forces to agree to “Days of Tranquility” for all upcoming anti-polio campaigns, especially in the strife-torn south, where violence has significantly curtailed vaccinators’ mobility, leading to a seven-fold rise in cases this year.
“Most of Afghanistan is today polio-free,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Representative for Polio Eradication David Heymann said during an official visit to Kabul, the capital.
“But in the Southern Region, polio continues to paralyse children, and the reason is that they have not been vaccinated due to insecurity, as vaccinators cannot safely reach them. Agreed Days of Tranquillity in advance of and during the campaigns are urgently needed to allow all children living in areas of insecurity to be protected from this terrible disease.”
Afghanistan is one of only four remaining polio-endemic countries in the world. Strong efforts by Afghan authorities last year put the country on the verge of being polio-free but attempts to stop an outbreak in the south, which could become the last ever in the country, have been undercut by increased fighting in recent months.
This has led to a decrease in vaccination and a dramatic increase in the incidence of the paralysing and sometimes fatal disease in 2006, with 29 reported cases compared to just four last year.
The UN Childrens’ Fund (UNICEF) joined WHO in the appeal, stressing that the neutrality of essential public health interventions such as vaccination against polio must be respected by all parties to the conflict.
The two agencies also called on religious and community leaders to support polio eradication activities, since they are uniquely placed to encourage parents to participate in the campaigns targeting every child under five, in particular newborns, young infants and children who may be sick with fever or other illness.
In addition, religious and community leaders can help counter any false rumours about vaccination, WHO and UNICEF noted. The vaccine being administered in Afghanistan is the same as that used throughout the world, including other Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Indonesia.
Immunization campaigns in various Moslem-majority states of Nigeria were temporarily suspended in 2003 following concerns by public figures regarding the safety of oral polio vaccine, including rumours that it was contaminated by the HIV virus or could sterilize young girls. This led to the spread of the disease to other countries.