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Two million children to be reached in Afghan polio immunization drive

Major campaign to get underway in wake of new case of virus

KABUL, 1 May 2006 – More than two million children in southern, south-eastern and eastern Afghanistan will be targeted by a new three-day polio eradication drive, to be launched on Sunday 7 May.  The immunization campaign comes shortly after the country’s health authorities reported a sixth case of the polio virus in the south of the country this year.

Afghanistan is one of just four countries in the world still affected by the crippling polio virus.  Two months ago, Egypt was declared polio-free after successful immunization efforts.

The immunization campaign, led by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), is part of an ongoing effort to eradicate polio, with more than 15,000 health workers due to travel house to house in eleven provinces: Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Zabul, Uruzgan, Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika, Khost, Nangarhar and Kunar.  This mobile approach is essential in ensuring that every child in the target group is reached, with many families unable to access fixed health centres in rural parts of Afghanistan.

2.8 million doses of the oral polio vaccine are required for this latest campaign, which is being funded by donors including the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and Rotary International.  The ongoing polio eradication campaign is also backed by the Governments of Japan and the United States, amongst others.  The establishment in the last year of regional vaccine storage facilities across the country has also improved the management and transport of vaccines, greatly improving the effectiveness of immunization efforts in the provinces.

With six cases of polio reported in 2006 in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Public Health and partners are redoubling efforts to ensure every child under the age of five receives polio vaccine.  UNICEF Representative to Afghanistan Bernt Aasen urged families in the eleven provinces to look out for vaccination teams and make their children available to receive the vaccine next week.  “Polio immunization is an essential way of safeguarding children’s health and preventing this crippling disease from affecting their lives,” he said. 

“The vaccine, which is used all over the world, is safe and easy to administer.  It takes just a few seconds to immunize a child – but the results last for a lifetime,” said Aasen. “But unless we eradicate polio in Afghanistan, the virus will continue to threaten development, disabling children, placing greater strains upon families and adding to the pressure on national health resources.  Polio is not just a health issue – it has implications for economic and social development as well.”

Commenting on the new case of polio identified in Kandahar province in April, Aasen remained confident that polio eradication was still possible in Afghanistan.  “The new cases we have seen may be a result of improved monitoring and surveillance put in place by health authorities,” he said.  “People should have confidence in the immunization efforts – all over the world we are winning the battle against polio, as the success of Egypt has demonstrated.  If families play their part in presenting children under five for vaccination, support their local health teams in identifying eligible children, and if community leaders help to spread the word that immunization is in everyone’s interests, then Afghanistan too can soon become polio-free.”

In addition to supporting the regular immunization campaigns, UNICEF is calling upon donors to assist the Government of Afghanistan to improve routine immunization coverage, which is estimated to be less than 60 per cent. The systematic immunization of children against a range of potential diseases such as polio, measles, diphtheria, whooping cough and tuberculosis is essential to long term improvements in child health, and the reduction in child mortality.  In Afghanistan, UNICEF estimates that more than 600 children under the age of five die every day from mostly preventable diseases.

For 60 years UNICEF has been the world’s leader for children, working on the ground in 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

For more information, please contact:
Edward Carwardine, UNICEF Afghanistan, +93 (0) 799 60 7400, ecarwardine@unicef.org
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF New York, +1 212 326 7566, chajaj@unicef.org




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