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Two drops for each child: Afghan polio campaign breaks with tradition to reach all

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2010/Walther
In the courtyard of Mazar District Hospital in Afghanistan, a baby boy gets his two drops of oral polio vaccine. Once the vaccine is administered, the small finger of the child's left hand is marked with indelible ink to avoid duplication.

By Cornelia Walther

MAZAR, Afghanistan, 11 June 2010 – During a recent polio immunization campaign in north-eastern Afghanistan – organized in response to an outbreak of the disease in neighbouring Tajikistan – thousands of vaccination teams fanned out across the region in an effort to reach all children at risk.

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Supported by the partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, including UNICEF and the World Health Organization, the campaign – which wrapped up last week – covered the parts of Afghanistan that share a border with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

The aim was to administer oral polio vaccine to 1.2 million children in Kunduz, Takhar, Badakhshan and Balkh provinces.

Innovative methods

“We cannot rely only on the traditional approach of fixed vaccination stations in hospitals and mobile teams going from door to door,” said UNICEF Afghanistan Health Officer Dr. Farzana Maruf Sadat. “To reach all our children under five years of age with the polio vaccine, innovative paths must be deployed.”

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2010/Walther
After visiting a house, an Afghan volunteer vaccinator writes the total number of children living in the family, and the number who have been vaccinated, on the door. If a child is absent, a vaccination team member comes back the following day.

True to Dr. Sadat’s word, vaccinators waited in bus stations and along road checkpoints to catch travelling families. They attended wedding parties. They visited prisons, knowing that female prisoners usually bring their children along. And they were stationed in front of the Blue Mosque, a popular destination for tourists and the faithful.

Afghanistan is one of four countries where polio remains endemic, but the disease is mainly limited to the south and east, and zones that cannot be reached by vaccination teams due to conflict and insecurity.

Even though the large river separating Afghanistan from its northern neighbours provides a natural shield, polio can be brought in by anybody travelling from an infected area.

To ensure that children entering the country are immunized even after the end of the mop-up campaign, six permanent vaccination posts are being set up at border checkpoints. Building on a programme that was established to contain the Influenza A (H1N1) virus early last year, children travelling from neighbouring countries into the provinces of Faryab, Balkh and Badakhshan will get the polio vaccine at the border – before entering Afghanistan.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2010/Walther
A young child receives the oral polio vaccine in Mazar, Afghanistan.

‘This vaccine is very important’

In most cases, children under five receive polio vaccine during National Immunization Days and other vaccination campaigns, because their immune systems are particularly fragile. Although the vast majority of polio cases in Tajikistan have occurred among children under five, polio has also hit some older children, and the Tajik authorities have decided to immunize all children under 15.

The Afghan border posts will, therefore, administer the vaccine to older children, while the mop-up campaign inside the country continues to target those who are under five.

“My children have been vaccinated against all childhood diseases during routine immunization back home, but that doesn’t matter,” said one father whose family was crossing the border of Uzbekistan to visit relatives in Afghanistan.

“We will make sure they get the polio vaccine again.” he added. “This vaccine is very important. It doesn’t harm my kids but may keep them safe.”




3 June 2010: UNICEF Radio speaks with vaccination worker Mohamed Aeoz about the campaign to immunize children against polio in Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan.
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