Associated Press 13/8/2006
Polio cases surge in insurgency-wracked southern Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan - The number of polio cases in Afghanistan has risen fourfold this year, almost entirely in southern provinces shaken by the country’s worst fighting in almost five years, officials said.
Afghanistan has suffered 24 cases so far in 2006, compared to nine cases during the whole of 2005, said Dr. Shukrullah Wahidi, an official with the Ministry of Public Health who oversees the polio program. All cases were in the south, except for one this year in the west, he said.
Wahidi on Saturday blamed the spike in polio cases on the increasing violence, unregulated travel across the border with Pakistan where polio is also a problem, difficulty in establishing local health services and poor communication with community leaders.
Insurgent violence erupted across the south this spring, killing more than 900 people. Eleven NATO troops have died there since the alliance took charge of security this month with the hope of extending the central government’s reach by improving security and fostering development.
“These days even the government cannot go” into parts of Kandahar province controlled by the Taliban militants, said Dr. Muhammad Kabir, who heads a private group contracted to deliver health care in the region.
Kabir said his group, Afghan Health and Development Services, has been unable to open health clinics in Kandahar’s Shorabak and Reg districts because of poor security.
Two of his employees monitoring polio vaccination teams had their motorcycles stolen at gunpoint in Taliban-controlled areas, he said.
Dr. Hemlal Sharma, a UNICEF official in charge of the polio program, said the spike in polio cases this year directly stemmed from children not receiving vaccinations in late 2005 and 2006.
Sharma said so far this year “anti-government elements” stole an immunization team pickup truck, warned a vaccine delivery man at gunpoint not to use a highway again, and kidnapped two local vaccination monitors for several days.
A spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan, Aleem Siddique, said health officials have adjusted their approach in districts where local officials have not been able to guarantee access, and are now working with village elders to assure the safety of door-to-door immunization teams.
He said it is too early to determine the success of this approach.
The most violent regions of the south have been hit hardest by the virus. Kandahar has had 14 cases, Helmand had six cases, Uruzgan had two cases, and Zabul one. Farah province, in the relatively stable west, has had one case.
Polio spreads when unvaccinated people - mostly children under 5 - come into contact with the feces of those with the virus, often through water.
The virus invades the nervous system, can cause permanent paralysis within hours, and can be fatal.
About 1,880 people were sickened by polio worldwide last year, down from more than 350,000 before 1988, when WHO launched a global anti-polio campaign, according to the agency.