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Polio Vaccination Campaigns Restart In Afghanistan And Pakistan After COVID-19 Hiatus

In Afghanistan, a father cradles his child as female health workers administer polio vaccines. © UNICEF

Polio vaccinations campaigns have resumed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, months after having been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

Programmes are expected to be rolled out across Pakistan and almost half of Afghanistan this month, after vaccination drives in July reached some 780,000 children and three provinces in the two countries, respectively.

Critical, to avoid fresh emergency

“These life-saving vaccinations are critical if children are to avoid yet another health emergency”, said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for South Asia. “As the world has come to see only too well, viruses know no borders and no child is safe from polio until every child is safe”, she added.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last two polio-endemic countries in the world and the coronavirus pandemic had almost 50 million children without their polio vaccines, an easy protection against the highly infectious, crippling and sometimes fatal disease. Children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable.

Curbing transmission

Child vaccination drives, including polio campaigns, were halted in both South Asian countries in March to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission to children, caregivers and vaccinators themselves.

As a result, reported polio cases rose to 34 in Afghanistan and 63 in Pakistan, including in some previously polio-free areas, according to UNICEF.

The application of new vaccination guidelines and the use of protective equipment by frontline health workers will help ensure that vaccination campaigns resume safely.

‘Committed to reaching every child’

According to UNICEF, while every effort will be made to reach children nationwide in both countries, there are concerns that up to a million children in Afghanistan could miss out as door-to-door vaccinations which are not possible in some remote areas, and parents will have to make their way to health clinics to have their child vaccinated.

Nonetheless, Ms. Gough said that although new challenges could compound the coronavirus disruption, “the eradication of this contagious disease will get back on track and is firmly within our reach.”

“Together with the respective governments and other partners including the WHO (UN World Health Organization), Rotary, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - and with the dedicated work by frontline health workers - we are committed to reaching every child”, she said.

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