|© UNICEF St. Lucia/2010/Knott|
|Members of the Afghan and Indian teams exchange cricket bats signed by the players as a sign of solidarity in the fight against polio.|
By Cornelia Walther
RODNEY BAY, St. Lucia, 10 May 2010 – For the first time ever, the cricket teams of India and Afghanistan recently came together, playing a match here in St. Lucia in solidarity against the scourge of polio.
“Together we can bowl out polio, fielding education,” said Afghanistan team member Nowroz Mangal.
The International Cricket Council World Twenty20 game – known as ‘T20’ – ended with India’s victory, but the success goes far beyond the playing field. The two teams are joining forces to support a ‘Bowl Out Polio’ campaign across Asia and the rest of the world. The crippling disease, is endemic only in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Gesture of solidarity
On the eve of the T20 Game, which took place on 1 May, Indian batsman Suresh Raina and Afghan team captain Nowroz Mangal exchanged ‘Bowl Out Polio’ cricket bats.
The bats were signed by the 11 members of each team in a gesture of solidarity to eradicate polio in their countries and worldwide.
Progress is being made. As of 4 May, there had been only 115 confirmed cases of polio globally in 2010, compared to 396 by the same date in 2009. Eight of this year’s cases have occurred in Afghanistan and 19 in India.
Major hurdles in Afghanistan
Insecurity is the key hurdle in eradicating polio in Afghanistan, where vaccination teams can’t reach all children in conflict areas.
But there is good news. While lack of community participation was a major hurdle in the past, the increasing numbers of Afghan children enrolled in school has helped. Today 74 per cent of boys and 46 per cent of girls of primary school age are enrolled in primary school, compared to just 42 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls in 1999.
The polio virus has been limited to 13 insecure districts in Afghanistan.
|© UNICEF St. Lucia/2010/Walther|
|Afghan and Indian cricketers stand with members of the Barbados Youth League during the opening ceremony of the match played in St. Lucia to raise awareness about polio eradication.|
Approaching eradication in India
As India nears the goal of eradication, the frequency of polio vaccination rounds has been intensified. It is critical for children to be vaccinated before they travel.
Since 2007, more than 40 per cent of polio cases outside the endemic Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar occurred in migrant communities.
“If we do not end polio in India, the rest of the world will suffer,” said Mr. Dhoni, the Indian team captain. “Nothing is more important than our children’s future.”
Cricketers fight polio
Cricketers in India have been intensively involved with the polio eradication effort since 2003, when the ‘Bowl Out Polio’ campaign was launched by Indian cricket team members Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan. Today, the team promotes oral polio vaccination countrywide.
In Afghanistan, cricket’s popularity is growing. In the 1990s, cricket became popular amongst the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, who continued to play when they returned home. Unlike music and other sports, the Taliban eventually authorized cricket.
“My future as a cricket player was secured a long time ago, when I was a child,” said Afghan cricketer Raees Ahmadza, founder of the Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organization (AYCSO). “Vaccination is essential to protect our children from polio. Education is the social vaccine to boost our society.”
‘The best chance we've ever had’
In 2009, UNICEF and AYCSO organized a cricket training camp for 50 children in Kabul; and a similar one is planned for this year.
As long as in India and Afghanistan continue to see polio transmission, all of their neighbors are at high risk of re-infection. In recent weeks, both Nepal and Tajikistan have been re-infected with poliovirus.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Director of the Polio Eradication Initiative at the World Health Organization, paid tribute to the Afghan and Indian cricket teams for raising awareness about polio at such a critical time.
“Right now, we have the best chance we've ever had to end polio forever," he said. “The greatest threat to finishing the job by end of 2010 remains the $1.4 billion funding gap. The world must not squander this unique opportunity to bowl out polio, once and for all.”