Polio Threatens Destitute Afghanistan, Many Children Still Not Vaccinated

by Aruna on  September 16, 2009 at 9:32 AM General Health News   - G J E 4
In the poorest region of one of the world's most destitute countries, Gulbadan Halifazada lives in a house in mud-brick compound without electricity or running water.
Polio Threatens Destitute Afghanistan, Many Children Still Not Vaccinated
Polio Threatens Destitute Afghanistan, Many Children Still Not Vaccinated

In the compound she, her husband and their half-dozen children share with two other families, four goats and a calf are tied up in a corner, turkeys scratch around them and sunflowers planted in the parched earth wilt in the searing late-summer heat.

Not much has changed in Chaghcharan, capital of central Afghanistan's Ghor province, in recent years, 42-year-old Halifazada told AFP, but perhaps things are about to get better for the next generation.

All her five daughters go to school, she said, while she didn't get the chance. And the arrival on her doorstep of a team of UN volunteers administering polio vaccinations to the under-fives could only be a good thing.

"We have no land or cattle, only two people are working among us and they can only do day-laboring that brings in 200 afghanis (four US dollars) a day," she said, standing among a crowd of about a dozen children aged under 10.

"But the girls are getting an education and I am expecting them to do better than I did," she said, looking older than her years and the small blue tattoo between her eyes fading into the deep lines of her bronzed forehead.

Health care, or the lack of it, is one of many problems facing Afghanistan, eight years after a war to topple the extremist Taliban regime and the arrival of billions of dollars in international aid.

"All the people of Ghor province are sick," said provincial Governor Sayed Mohammad Iqbal.

"By that I am not referring to specific diseases but to the poor economic development, joblessness, poverty, the lack of attention from the government in Kabul and from the United Nations and the international community," he said.

The population of the province is 900,000, of a national total believed to be around 23 million, 45 percent of whom are aged under 20, and the average annual income is 3,000 afghanis.

Health tops the priorities for Iqbal's two-month-old governorship, along with roads, education and energy, he said, adding that Ghor "has hardly changed in 300 years".

One consequence of that lack of development is the re-emergence of polio, with Afghanistan one of four countries, along with Nigeria, Pakistan and India, where the crippling disease is endemic.

On Sunday UNICEF launched an immunization campaign in Chaghcharan, part of a three-day nationwide blitz targeting 1.2 million children.

"Polio is an issue of common interest," said Peter Graaf, World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Afghanistan, adding that the program aims to immunize every child under five.

But the ongoing Taliban insurgency, particularly virulent in the south, Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces in particular, has meant many children are not being reached.

In those three provinces, where the Taliban have been on the offensive as foreign troops have boosted numbers and anti-insurgent activities, 660,000 children live in what UNICEF described as "13 high risk, difficult to reach districts".

Polio had been steadily falling, UNICEF's Afghanistan representative Catherin Mbengue said, to 31 cases in 2008 from 63 in 1999.

Since August, four rounds of house-to-house vaccination campaigns have targeted almost 7.5 million children, though deteriorating security and rising fear in the high risk areas has seen at least 100,000 left out.

The insecurity and fear bred by the Taliban insurgency was the reason that "this year 20 cases have been reported to date", she said.

Lack of community awareness, too few women volunteers essential for entering homes when men are not in, inadequate healthcare and movement of people between areas with and without polio have exacerbated problems caused by the insurgency, said Graaff.

Unlike in remote areas of Pakistan, where Islamists have railed against anti-polio campaigns claiming the tiny drops given to babies and children were in fact sterilizing them, Graaf said there was no such resistance in Afghanistan.

All they needed to do, he said, was get access to the children.

In Chaghcharan, Parizod sat in a cushion-lined room nursing her 40-day-old son Sayed Munib, tightly swaddled in an embroidered wrap as UNICEF volunteer Sema squeezed a drop of anti-viral medicine into his mouth.

As Sayed screwed up his meaty face at the horrid taste, and after much thought began to scream, his mother said: "This is good. Now I know he won't get sick with this disease and that gives him a good start in life."

Source: AFP

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