WHO data contradicts Afghan Taliban’s claim of zero polio cases

ISLAMABAD — A Taliban Health Ministry spokesman says Afghanistan has recorded no polio cases so far in 2024, contradicting reports of nine cases recorded by the World Health Organization.

“This year, we haven’t had a positive case of poliovirus in the entire country,” Sharafat Zaman, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health spokesperson, said in a video announcement ahead of a four-day polio vaccination campaign that began Monday.

However, the WHO-led Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has recorded nine paralytic polio cases in Afghanistan so far in 2024, including three reported this week from the southern province of Kandahar.

“The Afghan Ministry of Public Health has reported all the cases of wild poliovirus as per the IHR (International Health Regulations) protocols to WHO,” Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication for the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, told VOA.

Jafari told VOA that the information is available weekly in the WHO polio analysis published online. Afghanistan did not detect a polio case this year until April. It recorded six cases in 2023.

“[As of] now, we have no confirmed cases of poliovirus,” Zaman reiterated Tuesday in written remarks when VOA contacted him for an explanation regarding his ministry’s claims of no polio cases in Afghanistan this year, despite the nine cases recorded by the WHO.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only countries in the world where wild poliovirus is still endemic. The highly contagious disease affects young children and can paralyze them in severe cases or can be deadly in certain instances.

In his video statement, the Public Health spokesperson stated that the ongoing polio vaccination campaign would inoculate roughly 8 million children under the age of 5 against the paralytic virus in 23 of the 34 Afghan provinces. He called on parents, religious scholars, and community leaders to collaborate with vaccinators to help eradicate polio in the country.

WHO’s Jafari noted that Afghanistan has a “long and positive track record in complying with” IHR recommendations.

The regional WHO director told VOA that in addition to participating at every quarterly meeting of the IHR’s emergency committee, the crisis-ridden country “has intensified polio eradication efforts and identified ways of implementing temporary recommendations.”

WHO has warned that the recent repatriation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan has increased the risk of polio spreading on both sides of the border.

An ongoing crackdown on undocumented migrants in Pakistan has forced hundreds of thousands of Afghans to return to their home country since November 2023.

Polio in Pakistan

Pakistan recorded six cases of paralytic poliovirus in 2023 and has reported eight cases so far this year. According to the GPEI data, the worldwide case count stands at 17 as of Tuesday, nine from Afghanistan and eight from Pakistan.

The WHO has reported 44 positive wild poliovirus environmental samples from Afghanistan and 211 from Pakistan to date in 2024.

“The persistent detection of poliovirus in environmental samples and polio cases will delay the interruption of transmission beyond the timeline of the end of 2024 and will likely get pushed to the next low season in the first half of 2025,” Jafari said.

Polio immunization campaigns have long faced multiple challenges in both countries, including security and vaccine boycotts, dealing setbacks to the goal of eradicating the virus from the globe.

While the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan in 2021 effectively ended years of war-related violence there, surging militancy and allegations that vaccines cause infertility or that vaccinators are government spies continue to hamper polio eradication efforts in Pakistan.

“Despite immense efforts to stop polio, transmission of wild poliovirus type 1 in Afghanistan and Pakistan expanded through late 2023 and 2024,” Jafari stated.

He mentioned that the rise in poliovirus detection in environmental samples in Pakistan since August 2023 is mainly due to “unpredictable” population movements, leading to virus detection in previously polio-free areas. “The large, unusual population movements were in part related to the repatriation of migrants,” said the WHO regional director.

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