x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Afghanistan discovers first polio case since 2001

Health workers say infection of three-year-old girl in Kabul underlines urgent need to step up vaccinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

An Afghan health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child in Kabul on February 11. Afghanistan launched an emergency polio vaccination campaign in Kabul after a girl contracted the disease, the city's first case since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Wakil Kohsar / AFP
An Afghan health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child in Kabul on February 11. Afghanistan launched an emergency polio vaccination campaign in Kabul after a girl contracted the disease, the city's first case since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. Wakil Kohsar / AFP

KABUL // A three-year-old girl has been diagnosed with the first case of polio since 2001 in the Afghan capital Kabul, the Ministry of Public Health said on Tuesday.

The child, called Sakhina, was a member of the Kuchi nomadic tribe that moves freely across most provinces in Afghanistan and her family was living in a district of eastern Kabul.

The ministry has launched a three-day campaign to vaccinate all children under five in the area.

“When they went to the hospital after an examination, it became clear it was a case of polio,” Afghan Ministry of Health spokesman Kaneshka Baktash said.

Mr Baktash said the girl’s family moved freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan and she had probably contracted the illness across the border.

All but one of 13 cases recorded in Afghanistan last year were contracted in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, the world’s largest reservoir of endemic polio viruses, the World Health Organisation said in January.

Mr Baktash said Sakina was partially paralysed. Mr Baktash also said she was diagnosed in Pakistan, where Sakina was brought after falling ill.

The battle to eradicate polio is being undermined by the spread of the virus in Pakistan, where vaccinators are routinely killed by the Taliban, who see the programme as part of a plot to sterilise Muslims.

It is the only country in the world that recorded an increase in cases in 2013 according to the WHO.

On Tuesday, officials in Pakistan said a policeman was killed “mistakenly” and another wounded by gunfire during a polio vaccination campaign in the north-west of the country.

Militant attacks and threats of violence have badly hampered efforts to stamp out the crippling disease in Pakistan.

But police said Tuesday’s incident in a village 30 kilometres south of Dera Ismail Khan city, close to the lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, was not connected to the polio campaign.

“A policeman was killed and another was wounded during a door-to-door polio vaccination campaign,” senior police official Nisar Marwat said.

“It was not an attack against the anti-polio team. When the team was arriving in the area tribesmen were fighting with each other, and on seeing policemen they thought they were coming to arrest them and they opened fire.”

Imtiaz Khan of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provincial health department, who is overseeing the anti-polio drive, said the shooting would not affect the inoculation teams.

“The firing incident did not disrupt the anti-polio campaign in the province as the policemen guarding the health workers were mistakenly targeted by tribesmen,” Mr Khan said.

Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Militant groups also see vaccination campaigns as a cover for espionage, and there are long-running rumours about polio drops causing infertility.

According to the WHO, Pakistan recorded 91 cases of polio last year, up from 58 in 2012.

“The nightmare situation is if polio spreads in Karachi,” Dr Naqi Bukhari, a WHO official leading the vaccination efforts in the city, told The National last month. “If it spreads here it will spread across the world … it is the only megacity and global shipping port that is polio endemic.”

Pakistan’s failure to defeat polio stands in stark contrast to its neighbour and great rival India, which on Tuesday celebrated the eradication of polio three years after its last case.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban say they give their blessing to the Red Cross workers to conduct polio vaccinations in areas under the insurgents’ control.

The disease recently has drawn attention in the Middle East, with the United Nations is pushing ahead with a massive immunisation campaign after 17 polio cases were confirmed last month in war-ravaged Syria.

* Agence France-Press, Associated Press, and Reuters