Anti-polio gains threatened by returning migrants, 200,000 unvaccinated children in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD — The World Health Organization said Monday that the recent return of about 600,000 undocumented migrants from Pakistan to Afghanistan and an estimated 200,000 unvaccinated children in southern Afghan regions are a threat to regional gains against polio.   

In its latest assessment of the disease’s international spread, WHO said that both neighboring countries had made significant progress in interrupting the transmission of the two surviving genetic clusters of wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) in the region.  

Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last two nations where the crippling virus is still found, have reported two and zero cases of polio infections, respectively, this year.  

However, the WHO assessment said that the recent large-scale displacement of undocumented Afghans from Pakistan had “increased the risk of cross-border poliovirus spread, as well as [the] spread within both countries.” It cautioned that “any setback in Afghanistan poses a risk to the [polio] program in Pakistan due to high population movement.” 

The report stated that coordinated efforts were being made to “manage and mitigate” the risk through vaccination at border crossing points between the two countries.  


WHO said vaccination coverage in southern Afghan provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Zabul and Nimruz has improved “but remains suboptimal, with an estimated 200,000 children who remain unreached.” The large pool of unvaccinated children “constitutes a major risk,” it said. 

The report stressed that house-to-house immunizations of children are comparatively effective, but some parts of Afghanistan “still only allow site-to-site or mosque-to-mosque vaccinations.” 

It appreciated the Taliban government’s commitment to the global goal of eradicating polio in Afghanistan. WHO noted and praised the increased use of Afghan female health care workers in campaigns and strongly encouraged the implementation of house-to-house campaigns where feasible. 

The fundamentalist Taliban have banned women from many public and private sector workplaces, but the health sector is mostly exempted from the restrictions.

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