Afghanistan and Pakistan go to war – against polio!
KABUL - It is not just the conventional military war the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are fighting in the rugged mountains shared by the South Asian neighbours.
The two countries – supported by the United Nations agencies and the Rotary International – have waged an all-out war in the mountains stretching across the tribal areas which often make international headlines for violence and military offensives, for the welfare of the people living on the both sides of the border.
However, the new war is of a humanitarian nature – against the deadly polio virus.
A day after a three-day polio eradication campaign was launched in 14 provinces in southern, south-eastern, western and eastern Afghanistan, a similar synchronised campaign was launched today in the tribal areas of Pakistan to fight the virus in a coordinated manner.
Dr Khushhal Khan Zaman, head of the eastern regional office of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO), said the three-day campaign in Pakistan is concentrated, but not limited, in the “high-risk” border districts.
Cases of polio virus in eastern Afghanistan had dramatically increased last year following a major virus outbreak in the Bajaur and Mohmand agencies of Pakistan.
“Genetic analysis of virus found in Afghanistan had links to Pakistan,” said Dr Zaman, adding, “We do interventions on the both sides of the border because the viruses are related.”
Besides national and sub-national campaigns launched on a regular basis, some permanent immunization posts have been established along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
On Sunday, Catherine Mbengue of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Dr Tahir Mir of WHO and Dr Mashal Taufic of the Afghan Ministry of Public Health jointly inaugurated a newly rehabilitated polio immunization post at the Torkham border point which witnesses the cross-border movement of about 12,000 people everyday.
Over 2,000 children below five are vaccinated in the Afghanistan side of the border at Torkham daily. About 100 children are vaccinated in each of other five border points – Nawapas, Ghakhi, Benshahi, Dokalam and Gharo.
A social mobilisation campaign is implemented in partnership with stakeholders like the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, UNICEF, NGOs, Rotary International, International Committee of the Red Crescent, media and line departments.
A delegation from Kabul comprising UNICEF, WHO and government representatives on Sunday visited Kampuna area in Jalalabad which has seen a wide mobilisation of female volunteers, vaccinators and campaign supervisors.
In a press conference in Jalalabad on Sunday, Ms Mbengue said peace is needed on both sides of the border for the campaign to be successful.
“We really need peace so that all the targeted children can be reached,” said Ms Mbengue who, along with government and WHO officials, came down to Jalalabad to inaugurate the fresh polio eradication campaign and visited Torkham.
“Let us use 2010 as an opportunity to move forward towards a polio-free Afghanistan. Let us replace the ‘P’ of polio with the double ‘P’ of partnership and peace,” she said, calling on the community elders and religious leaders, among others, to facilitate the access of vaccination teams.
WHO Country Representative Peter Graff called on the media to play a greater role to spread the message about polio.
During the fresh campaign, 15,000 health workers will travel from house to house in the 14 provinces.
About 3.5 million doses of bivalent oral polio vaccine – which was used for the first time in December 2009 as a more effective weapon against “the resilient polio virus” in Afghanistan – have been made available for the campaign.
According to UNICEF, a steady decrease in the number of polio cases has been achieved with just 17 cases in 2007, down from 31 in 2006.
“And, still, amplified insecurity brought the number of cases to 31 in 2008 and 38 cases in 2009,” said Ms Mbengue.
By Tilak Pokharel, UNAMA