POLIO PLUS PROGRAMME PROGRESS
Taliban drive sees return of polio
- AMANDA HODGE, THE AUSTRALIAN, FEBRUARY 12, 2014 12:00AM
THE first polio case in Kabul since the 2001 fall of the Taliban has been discovered in a three-year-old girl living with her nomadic family on the fringes of the Afghan capital, highlighting the devastating impact of Pakistani militants’ violent campaign against vaccinations across the border.
The virus strain, believed to be identical to that still ravaging the northwest border areas of Pakistan, where up to 300,000 children remain unvaccinated, was discovered after the girl became paralysed and her father sought help.
The discovery has triggered a public health alarm and vaccination drive across Kabul, with hundreds of volunteer vaccinators fanning out to its poorest extremities where many Kuchi (nomadic) families live in tents and temporary structures.
But Health Minister Soraya Dalil said yesterday the Pakistani Taliban’s violent opposition to polio vaccination was “undermining efforts” in Afghanistan to eradicate the childhood disease.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the last three countries where polio remains endemic, though last year the Pakistan strain was also discovered in 17 Syrian children, raising concerns over the potential for the disease to be carried by jihadists into trouble spots across Africa and the Middle East.
India was declared polio free this year and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was due last night to attend a ceremony in New Delhi to celebrate the significant achievement.
Afghanistan has made great strides towards eradicating polio since the Afghan Taliban leadership withdrew its objections several years ago to vaccinations. Only 80 new cases were detected in 2011, and just 14 last year.
The Afghan government also has polio vaccinators stationed at border posts between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As many as 1.5 million people cross between the two countries annually, though many do so outside formal border posts and so are not captured by the vaccination campaign.
But Taliban militants continue to target polio health workers in Pakistan, who they accuse of being part of a western plot to sterilise Muslims. More than 30 health volunteers have been killed since July 2012.
This week the Imran Khan-led provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkwa Province, an area bordering Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, boasted it had vaccinated half a million children in a two-week long polio eradication drive.
Aziz Memon, chairman of Rotary Pakistan’s Polio Program — a partner in the campaign — says vaccination clinics are held on Sundays when security forces are free to provide protection.
“We’re getting very positive results and if we can continue we should be able to halt transmission in KPK,” Mr Memon told The Australian yesterday.
“But the problem remains in FATA where 300,000 children are trapped (either by Pakistani militants or the army) without access to health services.