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Afghan President meets WHO chief on polio eradication

Of four polio-endemic countries, Afghanistan closest to becoming polio-free

Days after Afghanistan vaccinated more than 7 million children against polio, the world's top health official and Afghan President Hamid Karzai pledged to capitalize swiftly on the country's remarkable progress towards eradicating the disease. Of the four remaining countries which have never stopped polio, Afghanistan is the only one which has not reported any case so far this year.

WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan was in Afghanistan on the first leg of a two-part journey to Afghanistan and Pakistan to encourage high-level and combined efforts on the part of both countries to stop the final chains of polio transmission, which straddle their common border.

Security situation a challenge

President Karzai and Dr Chan discussed exploiting the current epidemiological situation by focusing on the specific next steps to stop polio in Afghanistan. These include the mapping of various mobile communities so that migrant, nomadic and displaced children can be reached with vaccine, synchronized plans with Pakistan to stem cross-border transmission of the virus and ways to alleviate the impact of security conditions on polio eradication efforts.

In the southern region of Afghanistan and in areas bordering Pakistan, insecurity makes it hazardous for health workers to move around and vaccinate children. During her visit to the country, Dr Chan met also with NATO and the International Security Assistance Force to explore ways of negotiating pauses in the conflict that would allow vaccinators to go safely about their work. Such "Days of Tranquillity and a sense of security for health workers are indispensable," said Dr Chan, "for Afghanistan to protect its children from polio and to lead the world towards the complete eradication of this disease."

Meeting at the Arg (Presidential Palace), Dr Chan and President Karzai also reviewed the success of the new approach of synchronizing immunization campaigns with Pakistan across the long and porous border between the two countries, which are considered a single "block of transmission" for the poliovirus. Although Afghanistan has reported no cases to date this year, cases in Pakistan are genetically related to poliovirus detected in Afghanistan in 2006.

President Karzai confirmed his office would continue to provide the necessary leadership to attain a polio-free Afghanistan. "Afghanistan can win the polio race. As we rebuild our country, we will ensure that no Afghan child will ever again be paralyzed by this terrible disease."

Dr Chan travelled on to Pakistan for high-level meetings on polio eradication in that country.

Notes to editors

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative – spearheaded by WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF – was launched in 1988 by the World Health Assembly, the policy-setting body composed of WHO Member States. At the time, more than 125 countries were polio-endemic. Today, only four countries have never interrupted endemic transmission of polio: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The global drive to eradicate polio, which has reduced the number of polio cases worldwide by over 99%, is predicated on reaching all children under five years of age with oral polio vaccine multiple times.

In 2006, Afghanistan reported 31 cases, an increase from 9 cases in 2005. The bulk of these new cases were reported from the Southern Region. No new cases have occurred in Afghanistan since November 2006. To carry out the necessary immunization activities in 2007-2008, Afghanistan faces a total funding gap of US$ 19.60 million.

For further information, please contact:

Afghanistan MoPH
Dr Dost
National EPI Manager
Tel.: 0093799814812

WHO Afghanistan
Dr Tahir Mir
Tel.: +93 7028 6803 or +882 16 3333 8930

UNICEF Afghanistan
Dr Hemlal
Tel.: 0093798507602

WHO Geneva
Sona Bari
Tel.: +41 79 475 5511

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