Afghanistan records tenth polio case in 2019 as security worsens: officials

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan, one of the last countries in the world where polio is still endemic, has registered its 10th case this year, with most coming in southern regions where Taliban militants have wide control, a senior health official said on Wednesday.

A 21-month-old girl in the south central province of Uruzgan had been left partly paralyzed by the disease after her parents refused permission for her to receive vaccination.

She was the 10th case registered so far this year, compared with 21 for the whole of 2018.

“Our health teams visited the family several times, but unfortunately the family denied (permission) for the child to take the vaccine,” said Khan Aqa Miakhel, health director of Uruzgan province.

Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the last three countries in the world where polio is endemic with efforts to eradicate the disease in Afghanistan complicated by the violence across much of the country and by the refusal of some communities to accept vaccination programs.

Hedayatullah Stanekzai, the health ministry’s point person on polio, said that out of some 9 million children eligible for vaccination, around 860,000 had not been administered polio drops in 2018, mainly due to security threats.

“We have full preparation and facilities to run a vaccine campaign in the whole country but due to security threats, we can’t send our campaigners to the Taliban-controlled and other insurgent areas,” he said.

A Taliban ban on the Red Cross (ICRC) and World Health Organization operating in areas under their control had made the work of prevention more difficult and there was a risk that the disease could break out in other areas, he said.

Many health workers administering the vaccines were women, able to gain greater access to families in very conservative areas of the country and their safety was a key concern.

“We are deeply concerned about the Taliban’s ban on WHO and ICRC’s activities,” he said.

“If the ban is not lifted soon the polio virus will spread out to the areas which were cleaned in past 18 years,” he said.

Stanekzai said officials were talking to communities in Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces.

“We are in contact with tribal elders and people to find a solution for the problem, but we hope the anti-polio campaigns are not taken hostage by the warring sides for political purposes.”

Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie