Despite high hopes for the eradication of polio in Afghanistan, nine new cases have been reported in three southern provinces over the past month.
Six polio cases have been reported in Maiwand, Shahwali Kot and Gorak districts of Kandahar Province, two in Nadali District in neighbouring Helmand Province, and one in Urozgan Province since late June, the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) said.
This brings the total number of confirmed polio cases in the country in 2008 to 14. Five cases had been confirmed earlier in the year.
Oliver Rosenbauer, a communications officer for polio in the World Health Organization, however, said 11 - not 14 - new cases had been confirmed in 2008 and that these had trickled in since the beginning of the year.
“We believe there are several reasons for this new surge in polio cases - most importantly insecurity, population displacement and the repatriation of refugees,” Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for MoPH, told IRIN in Kabul on 24 July.
The insurgency, with increased attacks on health workers, has impeded access to some parts of the country where about 400,000 people, mostly in the volatile southern provinces, do not have access to basic health services, the MoPH has said.
Health officials are also concerned about returning refugee families whose children are not immunised against polio and other diseases.
Health officials in Kandahar Province have acknowledged there were shortcomings in the immunisation drive, which may have deprived some children of consistent immunisation.
“In some instances there have been faults in the immunisation campaigns which we are assessing and will address,” said Mamoon Tahiry, head of the immunisation department in Kandahar.
Polio has been wiped out almost all over the world except in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
For the past few years Afghanistan, backed by WHO and the UN Children’s Fund, has been struggling to eradicate wild poliovirus through 11 nationwide immunisation rounds each year.
But the virus has not been eradicated, with 31 cases in 2006, 17 cases in 2007 and now 14 cases so far in 2008, according to MoPH figures.
“Its very painful that these new cases have pushed Afghanistan at least three years away from the eradication of poliovirus,” said Fahim, adding that the MoPH was still “fully committed” to eradicating the disease.
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a wild virus, which mostly strikes children under five and for which there is no cure, health specialists say.
To curb the spread of the virus a new, robust nationwide immunisation and public awareness drive will be implemented in the near future, the MoPH said.
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it is working hard to galvanise efforts ahead of the International Day of Peace on 21 September, which will see vaccinators and health workers visiting all parts of the country and immunising millions of children.
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