Health

New polio cases spark concern in Afghanistan as coronavirus halts immunisation drive

AFP

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A wheelchair-bound Afghan health worker administers a polio vaccine to a child on March 20, 2019, in Arghandab District, Kandahar Province. Polio immunisation is compulsory in Afghanistan, but the government was forced to postpone its immunisation drives by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. [JAVED TANVEER/AFP]

KABUL -- Afghanistan has detected polio in areas previously declared free of the life-threatening disease after it halted immunisation programmes because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, officials said Sunday (June 15).

The polio virus has spread to three provinces that had not reported cases for up to five years, said Jan Rasekh, a spokesman for Afghanistan's polio-eradication programme.

Balkh, Herat and Badakhshan have each declared a single case.

Although the number of new cases nationwide is lower so far this year -- 14 compared with 26 in 2019 -- the location has sparked concern.

"We had worked hard for years and cornered polio to a limited geography," Rasekh said.

"The coronavirus has helped polio spread beyond its endemic region of the south and southeast and now threatens people across the country," he said.

Polio-eradication drives have been suspended in dozens of countries, while measles vaccination campaigns have gone on hold in 27 nations, UNICEF, the United Nations' children's agency, said in May.

The wild version of the polio virus continues to spread in only two countries -- Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Taliban thwart vaccine efforts

As many as 10 nationwide polio-immunisation drives are usually completed in Afghanistan every year.

Only two missions this year took place before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Rasekh said, adding that he hopes they can resume in July.

The Taliban continue to thwart authorities from conducting house-to-house campaigns -- the most effective way to fight the virus -- in areas they control, he added.

Polio immunisation is compulsory in Afghanistan as government policy, but distrust of vaccines is rife.

The Taliban and religious leaders often tell communities that vaccines are a Western conspiracy aimed at sterilising Muslim children and claim that immunisation drives are used for spying on militant activities.

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It is a shame that Taliban are preventing implementation of the polio vaccination for the country's children and this way they threaten their lives. The reason behind children's suffering from polio is Taliban. If Taliban have not prevented polio vaccination during the last twenty years, now this many Afghan children would not have been suffering from disability.

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Thousands of children remained deprived of polio vaccination during the last twenty years in Afghanistan as a result of war and insecurity, and tens of children are facing polio disease in the country every year. Mostly, the Taliban are guilty for this because they are not letting workers of health ministry go to the areas under the control of Taliban and apply polio disease vaccination to the children. Taliban should not do so because this endanger life of the country's children.

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The cause of all the children who have been paralyzed for the past 20 years are Taliban, because if Taliban had allowed health staff in the areas under their control and these children got vaccinated, they would not have been struggling with disability now. All the children who developed positive cases of polio and got paralyzed will become the burden of their families. This disability of them will not only make their lives miserable, but also will gloom the lives of their family members, such as mother, father, brother, sister, and so on, and the whole family will lead in grief as long as they live. Sometimes these disabled people even wish that they should die as soon as possible. Therefore, over the past two decades, thousands of children in the country have been deprived of the implementation of the polio vaccination due to the war and insecurity in the country.

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