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1.8 million children to be immunised against polio on Peace Day

[Afghanistan] Mass female participation in a polio eradication programme
The poliovirus has been eradicated all over the world except in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to the WHO (IRIN)

The Ministry of Public Health, backed by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO), is planning to immunise 1.8 million under-fives against polio between 21 and 23 September.

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Health workers said the three days from International Peace Day on 21 September would enable them to access communities in the volatile south, where insurgency and counter-insurgency-related violence had increasingly impeded aid and public service delivery.

"Peace Days are very important to ensure all children receive polio vaccines. Many districts in the southern, eastern and western regions have been missed during the polio campaigns this year due to insecurity, attacks and violence. UNICEF encourages all parties to understand that immunisation is for the children and not for any political agenda," Roshan Khadivi, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, told IRIN in Kabul.

Poliomyelitis has been eradicated all over the world except in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to WHO.

Conflict sustains polio

A joint evaluation by the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) and WHO found that polio had virtually been eradicated in the relatively calm northern parts of Afghanistan.


Photo: Akmal Dawi/ IRIN
Poliomyelitis has been eradicated in the north but the virus is still endemic in the volatile south

"In the past three years no polio case has been reported in the 10 northern provinces," said Abdullah Fahim, spokesman for the MoPH, owing to successful immunisation drives.

However, in the conflict-ridden south and southeast, where health services have been restricted by recurrent attacks on facilities and staff, it is virulent.

At least 16 polio cases have been reported this year, mostly in the volatile south, and seven were confirmed there in 2007, UNICEF said.

Three years ago, the MoPH announced that by 2008 polio would be eradicated. But conflict-related obstacles and access problems have thwarted this goal, public health officials conceded.

Access negotiations

Aid workers' ability to reach and assist vulnerable communities has increasingly been limited. Dozens of aid workers have been killed, abducted or threatened by criminal gangs and Taliban insurgents over the past two years, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office.

Some aid organisations, including UNICEF, have initiated indirect "access negotiations" to reach needy people in insecure areas.

"We are talking to community leaders and religious leaders through access negotiators to pass the message [to the armed opposition]. We are also mobilising women through women's projects that UNICEF is funding to get the communities' support for the polio eradication activities," said Khadivi.

Such negotiations enabled vaccinators to access 1.3 million under-fives in insecure regions on 19-22 September 2007, Khadivi said.


Photo: Akmal Dawi/IRIN
An Afghan boy crippled by polio. Health workers hope peace days will enable them to access children in insecure parts of the country

For the past two years the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has advocated for a day of tranquility on 21 September to enable humanitarian workers to deliver relief aid and conduct immunisation campaigns in otherwise inaccessible areas.

"We believe the voices for peace deserve to be heard and we hope this year's peace day efforts will have a resounding beneficial impact for the whole country," Adrian Edwards, chief UN spokesman in Afghanistan, told IRIN.

However, Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported spokesman for Taliban insurgents, said the message had not been communicated to them.

"They only talk about this in the media," said Mujahid, adding that the insurgents would respect a day of tranquility only if the Afghan government and international forces declared their commitment.

"If our enemies sincerely commit to a day of ceasefire we will also do so," he said.

No spokesperson for the NATO-led International Security Force (ISAF), which commands more than 34,000 multinational troops in the country, was available to comment on a Peace Day ceasefire.

The Ministry of Interior, however, gave its assurances: "The government of Afghanistan is strongly committed to peace and will respect Peace Day," said Zemarai Bashari, ministry spokesman.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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