WHO says 13 districts in Afghanistan critical for polio eradication

KABUL -- Successful anti-polio action depends on vaccinators being able to reach and immunize every child under 5 years old in 13 volatile districts in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Farah, according to the World Health Organization.

"These 13 districts are high priority areas and if we succeed in fighting the virus there, we will eradicate polio in the country," Tahir Pervaiz Mir, WHO's polio eradication officer in Afghanistan, told IRIN on Jan. 25.

IRIN is a UN humanitarian news and information service, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies.

"The virus is localized and we want to finish the job at the earliest [opportunity] and not allow it to spread beyond the southern region," Mir said.

About 84 percent of Afghanistan is polio-free but the disease remains virulent in the 13 districts, where health workers have little or no access.

Most of the 38 polio cases in 2009 were reported in the south, though one case each was reported in the provinces of Kapisa, Ghor, Nangarhar and Nuristan.

Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that affects mostly children under 5 years old through the oral-fecal route and in some cases causes permanent paralysis, according to the WHO.

Owing to its "professional and dedicated anti-polio activities" Afghanistan in December was the first country globally to use a new polio vaccine which is believed to be 30 percent more effective, WHO's Mir said.

The new bivalent vaccine is specifically made for polio virus types one and three, which are circulating in the country. Type two has not been reported globally since 1999, according to health officials.

"With this new vaccine we feel more confident and would be able to defeat polio here," Abdul Qayum Pokhla, director of the health department in Kandahar, told IRIN, adding that about 2.8 million children received the bivalent vaccine in the southern provinces in December.

In order to ensure polio eradication and immunize newborn children, the trivalent vaccine will also be used in the four nationwide and four sub-national immunization campaigns in 2010, the WHO said.