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Afghan capital sees first polio case since 2001 invasion

An Afghan health worker administers a polio vaccination to a child during the last day of a vaccination campaign in Kabul on February 11, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/WAKIL KOHSAR)

KABUL: A young girl from Kabul has been diagnosed with polio, the first case linked to Afghanistan’s capital since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, according to officials.

Afghanistan’s Public Health Ministry said that a vaccination campaign had been launched – with particular focus on the area of eastern Kabul where 3-year-old Sakina lived – in response to the diagnosis.

Dr. Kaneshka Baktash, spokesman for the ministry, said Sakina was partially paralyzed. Baktash added that she was diagnosed in Pakistan, where the child was brought after falling ill.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic, though cases have declined significantly in Afghanistan in recent years.

Still, the vast majority of cases in Afghanistan can be traced back to Pakistan, health officials say.

Abdul-Sabor Nariman, deputy spokesman for the Public Health Ministry, suggested that was the case with Sakina and noted that her family had traveled often to the neighboring country.

Vaccination campaigns in Pakistan have been targeted by militants, who have killed several polio workers and the police sent to protect them.

Pakistan’s branch of the Taliban opposes vaccination against polio and considers such campaigns a cover for spying. They also claim the vaccine is intended to make Muslim boys sterile.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban say they give their blessing to the Red Cross workers to conduct polio vaccinations in areas under the insurgents’ control.

The disease recently has drawn attention in the Middle East, where the United Nations is pushing ahead with a massive immunization campaign after 17 polio cases were confirmed last month in war-ravaged Syria.

Polio is a virus spread through fecal matter that affects the central nervous system and can leave its victims with withered limbs, paralyzed or dead.

There is no cure but it can be prevented through mass vaccination programs that target those under 5.

In India, government and health officials Tuesday celebrated the eradication of polio in the country, reminding doubters that something once thought impossible had been achieved and promising to tackle other diseases that may still blight the country.

In January, the country of 1.2 billion people marked three years without a new case of the crippling virus, which means it will soon be certified as having wiped out the scourge.

At a function attended by the president and other dignitaries, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thanked the more than 2 million vaccinators who crisscrossed the country to help bring about the milestone.

“It is a day we have worked for tirelessly and awaited anxiously. Now it has dawned, it gives us great pride,” Singh told an audience in a New Delhi stadium.

India’s poor sanitation, mass internal migration and dilapidated public health system made experts believe it would be the last country to eradicate the disease, if at all.

“I sincerely hope that what we have been able to do will serve as an example and give the global community confidence that polio will be erased from the face of the earth in the same way as smallpox,” Singh said.

“It is our duty to follow the path laid by this program to other [public health] areas,” he added.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 12, 2014, on page 10.

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Summary

A young girl from Kabul has been diagnosed with polio, the first case linked to Afghanistan's capital since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, according to officials.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic, though cases have declined significantly in Afghanistan in recent years.

Still, the vast majority of cases in Afghanistan can be traced back to Pakistan, health officials say.

Pakistan's branch of the Taliban opposes vaccination against polio and considers such campaigns a cover for spying.

In January, the country of 1.2 billion people marked three years without a new case of the crippling virus, which means it will soon be certified as having wiped out the scourge.


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