Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

Finding a Joint Front Against Polio

PESHAWAR, Feb 13 2012 (IPS) - The world’s two worst polio-affected countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, have exhausted themselves in failed attempts to wipe out the crippling ailment.

A new immunisation campaign against polio has been launched jointly by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

A new immunisation campaign against polio has been launched jointly by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Credit: Ashfaq Yusufzai/IPS.

Of the eight new polio cases record in 2012, seven are from Pakistan and one from Afghanistan.

In their latest effort to tackle the problem, both countries decided to form a joint block under the World Health Organisation to eradicate the infectious disease – which causes motor paralysis and the atrophy of skeletal muscles, often resulting in permanent physical disability or deformity – by December 2012.

The decision was made last year by the Technical Advisory Board (TAG), which is responsible for developing new strategies to wipe out the disease globally.

TAG is represented by U.N. agencies and other donor organisations, which spend roughly 200 million dollars every year in each of the militancy-riddled countries.

“The year 2011 proved very (difficult) for the neighbouring countries – Pakistan led the worldwide polio count with 198 cases followed by Afghanistan with 80 children affected by poliomyelitis,” WHO’s medical officer Jawad Khan told IPS.

Under the new joint action plan, he said, Pakistan and Afghanistan will launch a programme through which children traveling with their mothers between the two countries will be vaccinated.

Khan said that an estimated 10,000 children under five years of age cross the border every day, often unimmunised.

In every three-day (vaccination) campaign we can cover 30,000 children, he added.

In the past, both countries conducted 13 campaigns per year, targeting 20 million children in Pakistan and 11 million in Afghanistan.

Up until now, the majority of children crossing the border into and out of Pakistan were immunised, but the new campaign series will take place simultaneously in both countries to ensure that every child is immunised on either side of the border, according to Khan.

For instance, if a child leaves Pakistan during the three-day immunisation campaign, they will be vaccinated once they reach Afghanistan.

“Furthermore, we have (increased) the number of vaccination points from nine to 18 with a view to provide the oral polio vaccine (OPV) to all children (along) the two countries’ 2400-kilometre-long porous border,” he said.

According to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) information minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain, about 1.6 million Afghans live in the border province, crossing frequently into Pakistan.

In 2012, a virus detected in 15 cases in Pakistan resembled the one found in Afghan children.

“The Afghans have been causing us a plethora of economic and social problems and the latest is the transportation of the virus by Afghans to local kids. We need to tackle this huge public health issue through joint efforts,” he told IPS.

Already, Afghan families refusing vaccination are in danger of deportation. “So far six families have been deported for disobeying the state’s writ,” he said.

The majority of Afghans living on the outskirts of Peshawar or in any of the KP’s 25 districts are opposed to vaccination of their children on the basis that OPV was designed by the United States to render the recipients impotent and sterile, thereby ‘controlling’ the Muslim population.

“An estimated 30,000 Afghan kids of the targeted 70,000 in KP didn’t get the vaccine because their parents opposed it. Parents of 17,000 (Pakistani) children refused OPV for similar reasons,” Akbar Shah, a polio officer, told IPS.

Noor Wali, an official at the Ministry of Health in Afghanistan, told IPS that more than 100,000 children in Afghanistan didn’t receive the vaccine last year, adding that since both countries faced identical problems, they needed identical solutions.

Shah said local religious leaders have been tasked with prevailing upon the parents of Pakistani and Afghan children that OPV doesn’t caused impotence or sterility.

“We have also enlisted the support of prayer leaders in Afghanistan who will visit parents to try and convince them to vaccinate their children,” said Wali.

One of the biggest problems is that the Taliban have been opposing polio vaccination in both countries, operating under the misconception that it is ‘unnecessary’.

“In Afghanistan we (are trying) to get the Taliban’s support for the campaign. Our teams will inform the Taliban that OPV is important to protect children from permanent disabilities in the future,” Wali said.

Jan Baz Afridi, head of the KP’s polio programme, says that his region has already entered into an alliance with religious leaders to ensure that all the children receive vaccines.

“About 1000 religious leaders have been trained on OPV and they are now ready to visit the parents who were refusing vaccination,” he said.

These religious scholars will also attempt to convince the Taliban that protecting children against diseases is the duty of every parent.

Since people hold prayer leaders and local clerics in high esteem, their involvement could signal a breakthrough in the two-decade fight against poliomyelitis.

“We hope this new strategy works,” Afridi said.

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