Will Afghanistan be Polio-Free in 2022?

International health workers say the end of the war in Afghanistan brings new hope to efforts to rid the country of the crippling disease polio. 

For many years, efforts to immunize all Afghan children under five years old were considered unfeasible because of widespread insecurity and threats to health workers. 

But with the end of the war, and Taliban pledges last year to support the polio immunization campaign, aid agencies now say they can access nearly all parts of the country, giving them an opportunity to eradicate poliovirus.  

“If we succeed to implement the planned polio campaigns with high coverage of 95%, we can interrupt the circulation of polio virus by the end of 2022,” Kamal Shah Sayed, a UNICEF spokesman in Afghanistan, told VOA.  

Backed by the United Nations Children’s Agency (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), a three-day nation-wide polio immunization campaign targeting nearly 10 million children was launched in Afghanistan on January 17. Four additional campaigns are planned for this year.  

Taliban back immunization campaign

Once considered a major obstacle in the way of anti-polio efforts because of their indiscriminate attacks as they fought U.S. and Afghan Government forces, the Taliban are now helping U.N. agencies to eradicate polio, Sayed confirmed. The U.S. withdrew all forces from Afghanistan last August as the Taliban fighters toppled the U.S.-backed Afghan government and declared the country an Islamic Emirate.  

Only four cases of poliovirus were confirmed in 2021 in the landlocked country, down from 56 cases a year before.  

However, there are still several challenges for making a polio-free Afghanistan in 2022.  

Poliovirus is still virulent in the neighboring Pakistan and can easily be transferred through the long and porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings. Polio cases also saw a significant drop in Pakistan from 79 cases in 2020 to only one confirmed case in 2021, according to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Program.  

Poor awareness about poliovirus and how to protect children against it remains another problem, particularly in rural Afghan communities.   

Immunization workers also need to have access to every household across the country, but this has been resisted by some Taliban officials who prefer to conduct immunization campaigns at local mosques.  

“The house-to-house polio campaigns are very important,” said Sayed of the UNICEF adding that such access should be especially ensured in the traditional “key polio reservoir regions of the South and East.”  

The drive to rid Afghanistan from poliovirus is taking place as the country suffers from an economic paralysis and a widespread humanitarian crisis which threatens most of the country’s estimated 35 million population. The U.N. has called for nearly $5 billion to provide life-saving food, health, and shelter assistance to the most vulnerable Afghans in 2022. 

The polio immunization campaigns appear to have no funding shortfalls thanks to some 70,000 Afghan volunteers as well as financial contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Rotary International, the Canadian government, United Arab Emirates, and the Japanese government, UNICEF said.

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