New polio cases in Afghanistan as coronavirus halts immunisation

KABUL (AFP) – Afghanistan has detected polio in areas previously declared free of the life-threatening disease after immunisation programmes were paused due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials said yesterday.

The polio virus has spread to three provinces that had not reported cases for up to five years, said spokesman for Afghanistan’s polio eradication programme Jan Rasekh.

Balkh, Herat and Badakhshan have each declared a single case.

Although the number of new cases nationwide is lower so far this year – with 14 compared to 26 in 2019 – the location has sparked concern.

“We had worked hard for years and cornered polio to a limited geography,” Rasekh said.

“The coronavirus has helped polio spread beyond its endemic region of south and southeast, and now threatens people across the country,” he added.

The United Nations (UN) children’s agency UNICEF said last month that polio eradication drives had been suspended in dozens of countries, while measles vaccination campaigns were also put on hold in 27 nations.

There are only two nations remaining where the wild version of the polio virus continues to spread – Pakistan and Afghanistan – but a strain that has mutated from the vaccine itself has caused outbreaks in Africa.

Up to 10 nationwide polio immunisation drives are usually completed in Afghanistan every year.