Afghanistan presses ahead to end polio
(Top) Dr. Nasir Khan, president of the Rotary Club of Jalalabad, immunizes a child against polio during Afghanistan’s March NIDs.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Brown
(Bottom) Past District Governor Stephen Brown and his wife, Susan, join Afghan volunteers (many wearing Rotary caps) during the NIDs. Photo by Fary Moini.
Afghanistan’s relentless effort to finish polio has succeeded in cornering the virus in the country’s southern region, according to a World Health Organization report in February. The region is part of a larger zone of virus transmission that includes southern Pakistan.
Strong immunization coverage of children living in the border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan is critical to both countries’ efforts to end polio. "This is a virus that does not respect borders," said Dr. Rudolf Tangermann, a medical officer with WHO’s polio eradication initiative, following Afghanistan’s National Immunization Days (NIDs) in 2007. "These two countries cannot eradicate polio in isolation."
Dr. Ali Ahmed Zahed, a prospective member of the Rotary Club of Jalalabad, heads up polio immunization efforts in Afghanistan’s eastern provinces, where WHO considers endemic transmission of the virus unlikely. He has played an instrumental role in helping to carry out his country’s NIDs, including those held 9-11 March.
Stephen Brown, past governor of District 5340 (California, USA), and Fary Moini, a fellow member of the Rotary Club of La Jolla Golden Triangle, have led several humanitarian projects in Afghanistan and participated in NIDs there. Brown is impressed with the Afghan medical community’s high level of organization in support of polio eradication.
"Many individuals are involved and they keep very good records regarding not only the number of immunizations but, more importantly, the refusals or missed homes," he reported in his online journal.
Afghanistan’s March NIDs reached about 6.9 million children. However, fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security forces prevented immunization of all children targeted by the effort.
Vaccinating children and keeping track of who has been immunized is a challenge in a country without a census and where families, especially in the southern region, are constantly on the move to avoid danger. "In the morning you can go in [a village], but in the afternoon you can’t," says Dr. Rahmatullah Kamwak, who works in support of WHO efforts in southern Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, courageous volunteers armed with oral polio vaccine do an extraordinary job of finding children and ensuring they are protected against the crippling disease. The volunteers create a kind of mobile medical record as they work, staining children’s fingers with colored markers to verify they’ve received the vaccine and writing notes in chalk on the doors of mud-brick dwellings to indicate households that have been reached.
"[Afghanistan’s] polio campaign is nothing short of heroic," says Martin Bell, UNICEF’s ambassador for humanitarian emergencies. "It is setting an example to the world of what can be achieved under the most dire circumstances. . . . If Afghans could eradicate polio from their country in a time of war, what could they accomplish in a time of peace?"