Polio cases surge in Afghanistan, reversing years of eradication efforts

Taliban insurgency and coronavirus pandemic cut some communities off from vaccination campaigns, resulting in a rise in cases as millions of children are left exposed

Medical workers were unable to reach Hazrat Ali's home in Kandahar during recent vaccination drives and he has since lost the use of his legs after contracting polio. Qudratullah Razwan for The National
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Last Eid Al Fitr was a muted affair for Mohammad Naeem, 31.

The shopkeeper in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province struggled to provide for his family as Taliban violence and the coronavirus pandemic raged.

On the second day of Eid, his son Hazrat Ali, 2, became very ill.

“His fever kept rising, so we rushed him to the local clinic,” Mr Naeem said.

“But because it was Eid there weren’t many doctors available and we had to wait until after the holidays to get him checked.”

Hazrat Ali started to develop paralysis in the legs. His fever became worse.

When doctors at the small clinic were unable to diagnose the boy’s illness, Mr Naeem took him to Mirwais Hospital in the provincial capital.

“They took some tests there, but it was after two months that the results came, showing that the child had polio,” he said.

“We couldn’t take him to the clinics because the polio workers had stopped vaccinations for six months due to Covid-19,” Mr Naeem said.

The boy lost the use of his legs in three days.

“He was a normal kid, playing and running around, and just like that things have changed,” Mr Naeem said.

ICRS's orthopedic center in Kabul where they treat children with polio. Hikmat Noori for The National

Hazrat Ali is one of 3.3 million children in Afghanistan who missed their polio vaccine over the past three years because of conflict.

The situation has been made worse by disruptions to healthcare services during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result, polio case numbers in Afghanistan have soared, reversing years of efforts to eradicate the disease.

Merjan Rasekh, head of public awareness at the Afghan Public Health Ministry’s polio eradication programme said: “Compared to past years, 2020 was the worst year for Afghanistan, particularly the southern region.

“We had a total of 56 cases in 2020, compared to 19 in 2019.”

Afghanistan is one of two countries with new cases of the polio virus.

The pandemic forced officials to suspend door-to-door polio inoculations, to ensure the safety of field workers, Mr Rasekh said.

“We had to halt polio campaigns between February 2020 and August 2020,” he said.

“And the deteriorating security situation limited our access to parts of Afghanistan .”

More than a million children have missed out on the polio vaccination in Afghanistan during the last two years due to the Taliban insurgency and coronavirus pandemic. ICRS's orthopedic center in Kabul. Hikmat Noori for The National 

The country’s south, where fighting between government forces and the Taliban escalated, has been particularly been hit hard by the resurgent virus.

Abdul Qayoum Pukhla, the head of the Polio Operations Centre in Kandahar, said: “Of the total cases, 38 were from the south, and 14 of these were just from Kandahar.”

The authorities could not vaccinate nearly 1.1 million children in the last two-and-half years due to insecurity, he said.

“In fact, 28 of the cases are from districts we don’t have access to because of the conflict,” Mr Pukhla said.

Among these is 11-month-old Sardar Wali from Shahwalikot district, who was found to have the polio virus three months ago.

"We missed numerous polio vaccination campaigns because the vaccination team couldn't reach our village due to the fighting. And today my son is disabled because of this insecurity," his father Ahmad Wali, 28, told The National.

“Earlier, the polio teams would come to our mosques and we would take our kids so they could get the vaccines,” Mr Wali said.

Due to recent security problems in Kandahar, health workers are not allowed to come to the villages , he said.

“It has been close to a year that we haven’t vaccinated our kids and everyone is worried about their children.”

Panjwai, Zherai, Arghandab and Dand among other districts were left out in the last few vaccination campaigns, Mr Pukhla said .

Although many parts of southern Afghanistan remain contested, some areas have fallen to Taliban control and the insurgent group wields considerable influence.

They have often refused access to health workers whom they did not trust, making it harder for the Afghan government to conduct vaccination drives.

Health workers have had to intensify efforts, often at great personal risk, to reach certain communities.

“We have been using all our personal and professional contacts, from the provincial level to the presidential palace, to convince all parties to the conflict to let us do our campaign,” Mr Pukhla said.

“I have even requested that they include health care as a serious talking point in the Doha meetings,” he said, referring to the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Qatar.

ICRS's orthopaedic centre in Kabul where they treat children with polio. Hikmat Noori for The National

“We have the capacity to reach all the children in Afghanistan if only we could work together to fight this virus,” he said.

Mr Naeem and Mr Wali echoed the sentiment and called for urgent action.

“I have vaccinated all my kids and always kept track of their health. The last few we missed due to the security situation in our village and Covid-19, and now, my son’s life is ruined,” Mr Naeem said.

Hazrat Ali and Sardar Wali, have been provided with orthopaedic splints to help support their legs, and will require regular physiotherapy and new braces as they grow older.

Mr Wali said that an inability to act against the polio virus could result in a further rise in cases.

“Bombs and rockets have been disabling our kids for decades, but now here is another evil [polio] that is paralysing our children,” he said.