Seven million Afghan children under the age of five will be vaccinated against polio in a three-day campaign, starting on 5 September, marking another crucial stage in the country’s efforts to eradicate the crippling disease.
The campaign, which is led by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health with support from UNICEF and WHO, gets underway as health officials confirms a total of four cases of the disease being reported in 2005, the same number as identified last year. The localised nature of the cases – all have been discovered in the southern border provinces – indicate that Afghanistan is winning the battle against the indigenous virus thanks to a massive drive that has seen millions of children vaccinated each year in every community in the country.
The September campaign will utilise the skills of 40,000 people, working in more than 16,000 teams of vaccinators and monitors. The vaccination teams will move from house to house in every community, in an effort to ensure that all children are reached over the three day period from 5 to 7 September. Afghanistan’s rough terrain, and the fact that many small children remain within the household compounds throughout the day, makes access to families a challenge – the work of the mobile vaccination teams is therefore a critical aspect of the campaign approach.
One important group of advocates for polio immunization in Afghanistan is made up of the nation’s religious leaders, who traditionally inform families of forthcoming vaccination campaigns through Friday worship. This year their information messages will incorporate a new element – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, destination for millions of Muslims making their ‘haj’ or holy pilgrimage to Mecca, has announced that all pilgrims under the age of 15 must have received polio vaccine before they can enter the country.
While the four National Immunization Day campaigns held each year are an important defence against the spread of polio, health experts believe that investment in routine immunization – the systematic immunization of children as part of ongoing health care programmes – is essential to ensure complete eradication. Afghanistan’s routine immunization levels average just 66 per cent; well below the global standard of 80 per cent of children. The Ministry of Public Health held a major multi-partner conference earlier in 2005 that won commitments from key health partners to develop nationwide integrated health care, including routine immunization.
One key partner in the Afghan polio eradication campaign is Rotary International which, through the Polio Plus initiative, has been actively involved in immunization and polio eradication since 1985. Through the initiative, Rotary clubs and individual Rotarians voluntarily dedicate themselves to a polio-free world. Rotary International official Mr. Abdul Haiy Khan, recently visited Kabul to provide guidance and support to the country’s re-emerging Rotary Clubs, which in most countries play an active role in immunization campaigns, with members working as vaccinators and social mobilizers.
“As Afghanistan finds it place once more on the world stage, the role of national Rotary Clubs will become increasingly important in helping the country to tackle some of its major health and social challenges,” said Mr. Khan. “I find it heartening that in a country devastated by so much conflict and upheaval there is a growing desire within civil society to play its part in helping the nation to rebuild and that Rotary is once more establishing its presence in Afghanistan.”
In addition to Rotary International, Afghanistan’s National Immunization Days receive financial assistance from a number of international donors, including the Governments of Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.