The governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan - in collaboration with their partners at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) - have launched parallel campaigns aimed at vaccinating over 40 million children in both countries against polio.
“Polio is silent and doesn’t respect international borders,” Melissa Corkum, a spokeswoman for UNICEF's polio eradication programme in Islamabad said.
“Given the high cross border movements between the two countries, it is critical that the campaigns are synchronised,” she said, adding that teams of vaccinators had been positioned at border posts, as well as transit areas such as train stations, bus stations and airports, as part of the effort.
Both are comprehensive nationwide campaigns, with vaccinators travelling house-to-house, Corkum said, adding that campaign planners in the border districts had met ahead of the campaigns to ensure synchronised planning and mobilisation of communities.
Polio fact box
On 7 August Pakistan launched its third nationwide immunisation drive this year, targeting 33.5 million children under the age of five and employing almost 86,000 vaccination teams.
The three-day effort comes at a time when the Afghan campaign, aimed at reaching 7.3 million children under the age of five and employing 42,000 vaccinators, is set to conclude.
“The last day of our campaign will be the first day of the Pakistan campaign,” Dr Tahir Pervaiz Mir, head of WHO’s polio eradication drive in Afghanistan, told IRIN from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. “This is the time when we will be focusing on the border populations together.”
Such efforts are far from new but the collaboration serves as further proof of both governments’ resolve in eradicating the debilitating disease.
Health experts have long viewed the countries as one epidemiological block, given the large number of people that traverse across the porous 2,400km common frontier.
“People travelling between the countries can easily carry the virus across the border and there is evidence of virus sharing between the two countries. Therefore it is critical to immunise those children on the move between the two countries and to ensure strong cross border coordination during the supplementary immunisation campaigns,” Corkum said.
Insecurity threatening Afghan campaign
“Our efforts are always synchronised,” Mir of WHO said. In addition to issues of migration that inhibit the ability of vaccinators to reach all children, Mir noted that insecurity in Afghanistan, particularly in the southern region, continues to remain a challenge.
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“As in similar vaccination rounds, we’re still not able to reach around 100,000 children there,” he confirmed.
According to WHO, global efforts in eradicating polio depend on four countries where the virus remains endemic - India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In 2006 there were 40 confirmed cases of polio in Pakistan and 31 in Afghanistan.
This year, there have been 11 confirmed cases in Pakistan, including four in Sindh Province, two in Balochistan and four in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province.
In Afghanistan there have been five confirmed cases; three in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, as well as two in the eastern provinces of Laghman and Nangarhar, close to the border with Pakistan.
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