KABUL, Afghanistan – The first polio case since 2001 was diagnosed in the country’s capital, Kabul, according to the country’s Ministry of Health. A 3-year-old girl, Sakhina, was diagnosed after she became paralyzed and was taken to Pakistan by her father for treatment.
Since the diagnosis, the Ministry of Health has launched a three-day vaccination campaign in Kabul to ensure that all children under the age of five are immunized against the disease.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, is described as a “crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease,” according to the CDC. It is caused by a virus which attacks the central nervous system, specifically the spinal cord and brain, resulting in paralysis and even death.
Although no cure for the disease has been discovered, vaccinations have proved highly successful in decreasing the amount of polio cases worldwide by 99% since 1988. Only three countries remain endemic to the disease: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
Of these three countries, only one, Pakistan, has experienced an increase in polio infections in recent years. More than 300,000 children remain unvaccinated, many of whom are found in Peshawar, a large city located in northwestern Pakistan that is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be the world’s “largest reservoir” of polio. Almost all cases within both Pakistan and Afghanistan can be traced back to Peshawar.
These facts worry Afghanistan’s Ministry of Health, as Sakhina, the Afghani girl recently diagnosed with polio, often travels between the two countries with her family. They are members of the formerly nomadic Kuchi tribe, who are now settled in eastern Kabul. As the polio strain between the two countries is identical, cross-border transmission seems inevitable.
Health workers on the Afghanistan border have been attempting to monitor and vaccinate children who are crossing, but more often than not families avoid formal customs posts and cross along unmapped mountain and desert trails. An estimated 1.5 million children cross the frontier each year.
Polio vaccination campaigns in Afghanistan have been largely successful since the Taliban ceased targeting health workers distributing the vaccine, but the case in Pakistan has not been so promising. Militant groups campaigning against vaccinations within the country have repeatedly attacked health workers, claiming that the vaccines are dangerous and cause infertility. It is this precise type of opposition that is continuing to undermine global health efforts to eradicate the disease.
Similar types of challenges are being faced in Syria, where the virus has re-emerged. The ongoing civil war has left many rural areas isolated, preventing proper medical aid and vaccinations from reaching those who need it most.
Afghani Health Minister Soraya Dalil recognizes the threat that insecurity poses to the eradication of polio, noting, “This new case in Kabul tells us that the effort on polio eradication is not over yet, and we have to accelerate the effort to make sure that every child, no matter where they are, receive polio drops.”
Encouraging health workers such as Soraya, as well as the inspiration of success stories like that which we have seen in India, will hopefully be enough to finally eradicate this disease that has re-emerged in Kabul after 13 long years of prosperity.
– Mollie O’Brien