Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Friday, August 7th, 2020

Anti-Polio Campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Afghanistan is one of the three polio endemic countries in the world, alongside Pakistani and Nigeria. Last year, 21 wild poliovirus cases were reported in Afghanistan while 12 cases in Pakistan and zero in Nigeria, which indicates that Nigeria has controlled the poliovirus and now there are only Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As of October 16, there were a total of 88 polio paralysis cases in the two countries. They compromise a single large outbreak, because most cases are in the tribal areas along the border, where local people easily cross back and forth.
A total of 72 cases of polio have been reported so far in Pakistan, 53 were reported from KP, eight from Sindh, six from Baluchistan and five from Panjab, which shows an increase comparing to the last year. In Afghanistan, however, 16 cases of polio have been reported.
With this in mind, the Afghan health officials have launched an extended subnational immunization campaign to give polio immunity vaccination dose to 8.5 million children under five years old.
However, refusal against the polio vaccine began increasing on religious basis, mainly in Pakistan. After Shakil Afridi, who helped the United States Central Intelligence Agency to find Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad Pakistan, ran a hepatitis vaccine program, resistance to the polio vaccine increased there. “Refusals again increased this year because of propaganda against the vaccine by a school in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Pakistan’s CII Chairman Dr. Qibla Ayaz is cited as saying. According to him, around 30pc of polio vaccination refusals are made on religious grounds while the remaining 70pc are for political or other reasons in Pakistan.
Last year in Pakistan, rumors spread on social media saying the vaccine had triggered fainting spells – or even that it had killed dozens of children – and many families locked their doors to vaccinators or hid their children. The Times of London said last year that a Pakistani man returning from work and divorcing his wife on the spot after finding their children’s fingers marked with the indelible ink used by polio vaccinators.
Although Afghanistan has seen an incredible achievement over the past decade in reducing the number of polio cases, there are some obstacles before the anti-polio campaign similar to Pakistan. For instance, it is said that some parents believe that vaccines are not safe, or not halal, and refuse to have their children vaccinated. Simultaneously, families do not see the immediate necessity of immunization when they also lack access to basic services such as clean water and food. Third, the ongoing conflict also hamper the campaign against polio. Since May 2018, a ban on the house-to-house immunization strategy in most of the Southern region, including Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan has led to an upsurge in the number of inaccessible children. Moreover, the Taliban are also against the anti-polio campaign and hampered the activities
“We are concerned that following the long pause in polio vaccination in parts of the country, more children have become vulnerable to polio virus, therefore it is of paramount importance that we vaccinate those who have been missing out,” the Ministry of Public Health said in a statement.
To overcome the challenges, more than 70,000 front-line workers are reportedly recruited from their communities, during nationwide campaigns, to deliver house-to-house vaccines. The program also works with influential individuals in the communities, including religious leaders, to mobilize and convince people to have their children vaccinated. Refusal Oversight Committees have been formulated at national and provincial level to systematically guide, monitor, and track progress of reduction of refusals.
About 96pc of the country is polio free and the virus is geographically restricted. Despite the challenges, Afghanistan has made great strides in decreasing the number of polio cases.
Politicizing the issue of polio or painting it with religious brush will harm a nation.