Afghanistan

A milestone in the effort to eradicate polio in Afghanistan

A public service announcement calling for all Afghans to join in the effort to eradicate polio.  Download this video

 

By Rajat Madhok 

One of just three countries where wild poliovirus remains endemic, Afghanistan has taken a major step towards eradication, thanks in part to the efforts of the health volunteers who go door to door every day to ensure every child is vaccinated.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, 19 November 2013 – It’s an early start for Rahila*, a volunteer who knocks at every door in her community asking mothers to bring their children to get vaccinated against the crippling polio virus. The chill in the morning breeze doesn’t deter this determined health worker from doing her rounds.

The Southern Region of Afghanistan poses serious challenges for Rahila and her colleagues. High levels of insecurity and inaccessibility in many districts make it difficult for vaccinators to reach every child. On top of this, they also face significant cultural hurdles. 

“Working in Kandahar as a female is very tough,” Rahila says. “Most women have to convince their own families that it is good work for a good cause, that it is safe and that we will be working mainly with other women.” 

Rahila has been working as a social mobilizer for polio for several years and says she continues to face challenges while working in communities. 

“I am often criticized for working outside the house and for being engaged in this programme,” she says. “But I continue to work, because I believe it is my right to contribute to making my community better, and I believe it is our children’s right to be protected from polio.”

Encouraging milestone

In spite of all obstacles, the hard work and commitment of Rahila and many others like her has yielded some extraordinary results. The five provinces that make up Afghanistan’s Southern Region have now reached one year without any reported cases of the polio virus , giving a major boost to the country’s fight against the disease.

 

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Afghanistan/2013/Dragaj
A woman administers a dose of oral polio vaccine. Women in Afghanistan play a vital role in efforts to eradicate the disease, especially in parts of the country where cultural norms prevent male vaccinators from entering homes.

The achievement is especially significant because Kandahar and Helmand provinces have long been identified as the epicentres of polio in Afghanistan, and the Southern Region as a whole one of the most persistent reservoirs of poliovirus globally.

This milestone will further encourage the polio eradication effort in the eastern region of the country, which continues to battle an outbreak of polio that has seen nine cases reported so far this year. It will also boost efforts in the areas of the country that have low levels of routine immunization coverage. 

“Passing one year without any reported cases of wild poliovirus in the southern region is an encouraging milestone and a great credit to the frontline health workers,” says Dr. Suraya Dalil, the Afghan Minister of Public Health. “I urge those workers to now redouble their efforts over the next few months of the low transmission season, when transmission of the virus is traditionally slower. This offers a very real opportunity to stop transmission of the virus entirely across the country.” 

Vidhya Ganesh, acting UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, also expresses cautious optimism. “This is a timely reminder that the strategies and the tools we are using do work, and that we can eradicate polio once and for all,” he said. “We all now need to work harder than ever to build the immunity of children across the country through oral polio vaccine, but also to prevent the spread of the disease through healthier practices, including exclusive breastfeeding and better hygiene and sanitation.”

Tireless work

“This achievement is the result of the tireless work of the vaccinators, social mobilizers, health workers, community elders, religious leaders, media and most importantly the parents and caregivers of Kandahar and Helmand,” says Dr. Richard Peeperkorn, Afghanistan Representative for the World Health Organization. “While we recognize and welcome this success, we must remain vigilant and remember that Afghanistan is still fighting a polio outbreak in the eastern region and remains at serious risk of reinfection in the south.”

Efforts also continue across Afghanistan to strengthen the routine immunization system, so that children are better protected from all vaccine-preventable diseases and to sustain achievements in polio eradication in the long term.

Back in Kandahar, for Rahila and many like her, not a single reported case of polio in the southern region for a full year is a big milestone. But there is still a lot of work to do before the poliovirus is eradicated from Afghanistan. 

The polio volunteer dreams of an Afghanistan that is completely free of polio. Rahila sums up her passion in one sentence: “Ending polio is my responsibility.”

* Name changed

 


 

 

UNICEF Photography: Reaching every child

 

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