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Press release

Afghanistan declares “National Day of Unity for Children”; polio eradication near

Government to use National Immunization Days to launch first ever birth registration programme.

KABUL/GENEVA/NEW YORK, 20 May 2003 – Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai has designated today, Tuesday 20 May, “National Day of Unity for Children”. The announcement comes as the drive towards a polio-free Afghanistan enters the last mile with the start of the second “National Immunization Days” campaign for 2003, which aims to vaccinate 6 million Afghan children from 20-22 May.

The National Day of Unity for Children commemorates the work done so far on immunization, education and other child rights and commits to several important initiatives for children. Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF, joined other UN agencies in welcoming the declaration. “Promoting unity through child rights is one long-term solution to problems of ethnic conflict and political instability,” she says, “But to be effective those rights must kept at the top of the agenda today and every day. That means taking action and delivering the services these children need.”

Amongst the initiatives is the government’s decision to pioneer a collaboration between the polio NIDs campaign and the first ever national birth registration programme – an important move towards protecting children from exploitation and ensuring that adequate services are developed for them. UNICEF believes that birth registration is the first right of a child, without which other rights – immunization against disease, enrolment in school, protection from illegal trafficking, the right to vote and participate in the future of their country – become much harder to secure.

Led by the Ministry of Interior with support from UNICEF and the Ministry of Health, the campaign will capitalise on the NIDs established “house-to-house” approach to collect basic information on all children under 1 year old and create a central register. The programme is also expected to support the country’s polio immunization strategy as it enters a critical period. Since immunization against polio must reach every child to be effective and even one missed case can re-start an epidemic of the disease, those involved in the fight against polio in Afghanistan and around the world are delighted and encouraged by the move.

“It’s a great starting point,” says Carol Bellamy. “And a perfect example of how humanitarian programmes can support good governance, which can only be good news for children and their families. But we have some way to go to in Afghanistan to ensure that access to basic rights and services are actually delivered for all Afghan children, especially for girls.”

School children in Afghanistan will also be celebrating as the National Day of Unity sees the opening of new and renovated schools, part of UNICEF’s ongoing efforts with the Ministry of Education to bring children back into the education process. A nation-wide programme and enthusiastic participation by the Afghan children has generated real results in this area. In a country where not long ago education for girls was virtually banned, UNICEF’s “Back to School” campaign has seen school attendance double over the last two years . This year, 4.2 million primary school children are expected to return to the classroom this academic year (2003-2004), many of them girls.

Afghanistan is one of only seven countries in the world where polio remains endemic. It now stands on the verge of stopping transmission of the virus through the immunization initiative, led by the Ministry of Health with the support of UNICEF, WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Rotary International.

Over the three days, the polio immunization campaign will mobilize approximately 30,000 health workers and volunteers, taking the vaccine from house to house to reach every child irrespective of location. These immunizers will be supported by hundreds of staff from UNICEF and the World Health Organization, which provide technical assistance, vaccines, and vaccine storage equipment for the National Immunization Days and assist with the transportation of monitors and the payment of incentives for the vaccinators.

“Afghans have worked through ongoing conflict, political uncertainty and widespread population migration to create a better environment for their children,” says UNICEF country representative Sharad Sapra, “ The achievements in the fight against polio, amongst other things, are a testament to their efforts, of which they are justly proud.”

Notes to Editors on polio eradication in Afghanistan:

  • Polio NIDs have been conducted in Afghanistan since 1997, with great success.
  • In each of the five rounds conducted in 2002, as well as the one so far in 2003 (15-17 April), the immunization effort reached 6 million children.
  • In 1999 there were 150 polio cases in Afghanistan but just 10 cases were confirmed last year.
  • Almost all of these are confined to the southern region of Afghanistan. The Ministry of Health, UNICEF, WHO and the CDC hope to arrest virus transmission in the south this year – a critical step in eradicating the disease from Afghanistan as a whole and a major milestone on the road towards global polio eradication.
  • UNICEF, WHO, the CDC and Rotary International, partners in the Global Eradication of Polio Initiative, recently announced that a $275 million funding gap had caused a tactical shift in the fight against the disease and warned that although eradication is imminent, the gap must be filled before we can live in a polio-free world.

UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, foundations, businesses, and governments. Contributions to UNICEF's ongoing support for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative can be made at http://www.supportunicef.org/

For further information please contact us:.

Chulho Hyun, UNICEF Afghanistan, Kabul: +93 (0) 702 78493
Claire Hajaj, UNICEF Media, New York: (212) 326-7566
Damien Personnaz, UNICEF Media, Geneva: +41 (0) 22 909 5515
Mohammad Jalloh, UNICEF/New York, (1-212) 326-7516, mjalloh@unicef.org




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