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.