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AFGHANISTAN: Polio vaccination drive in violent south targets 120,000 children

KABUL, 5 Sep 2006 (IRIN) - Nearly 120,000 children aged under five will be vaccinated against the crippling polio virus during a one-day government and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) campaign in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday, according to officials from the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH).

Afghanistan, one of four countries in the world still blighted by polio, has seen the number of cases surge this year. There have been 26 confirmed polio cases in 2006, compared to only four in the same period last year.

Nearly all of this year's cases have been in the volatile southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Urozgan and Zabul. The deteriorating security situation in the south has made it difficult for health workers to reach children, MoPH officials said.

"Some 2,000 health workers and volunteers will go house-to-house in four high-risk areas such as Arghandab, Khakrez and Spin Boldak districts in Kandahar Province, and in Lashkar Gah [provincial capital of Helmand] to vaccinate some 120,000 children under the age of five," Aqa Gul Dost, director of the MoPH's National Expanded Programme of Immunisation, said.

The Taliban, who were toppled by the US-led coalition in late 2001, have been blamed for the increase in violence in the south. Hundreds of people including militants, Afghan security forces, civilians, aid workers and foreign troops have lost their lives in the fighting. Insecurity has been one of the most significant impediments to the polio immunisation programme.

"We cannot tackle polio effectively if there is not a safe environment for health workers to implement the immunisation programme properly," Dr Emal Shams, a World Health Organization (WHO) official in the Afghan capital, Kabul, said.

Dost said the one-day mission was a pilot programme that would be expanded if the security situation improved in other parts of the south.

The latest drive follows a three-day national polio vaccination campaign in August that targeted 7.3 million children aged under five. A second three-day round would be held from September 17 to 19, UNICEF said.

Unregulated travel to and from Pakistan, where polio still existed, difficulty in establishing health services and lack of awareness and poor communication with community leaders were the main factors fuelling polio's spread in the impoverished central Asian state, health officials said.

The United Nations warned that polio's resurgence in southern Afghanistan could have regional implications.

"In addition to posing a major health threat to over 7.1 million children under the age of five in Afghanistan, the resurgence of the disease in this country also puts polio-free neighbours such as Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan at risk," Adrian Edwards, the United Nations Assistance Mission's spokesman in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said.

Polio is a highly infectious virus that invades the nervous system and can cause total paralysis in hours. It can strike at any age but mainly affects children aged under three (more than 50 percent of all cases). It enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine. Beside Afghanistan polio remains endemic in Nigeria, India and Pakistan.

UNICEF, the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development funded the one-day vaccination campaign.

The above article comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006

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