Measles, tetanus and polio vaccination drive launched

Kabul, November 1, 2006 (IRIN) - Tens of thousands of children will be vaccinated against measles, tetanus and polio in southern parts of Afghanistan during a 10-day campaign launched on Wednesday by the Ministry of Public Health, with support from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and NGO partners.

WHO officials said that the insurgency-hit south and southeastern areas of the country were especially susceptible to measles outbreaks this winter due to high internal displacement and low immunisation due to insecurity.

The drive, which started in Paktya, Paktika and Khost provinces will be extended on Sunday to ten districts in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Nimroz and Helmand targeting around 540,000 children, according to United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

UN officials in the capital, Kabul said that the remaining districts in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimroz and in Uruzgan and Zabul provinces would be tackled at a later date.

More than 6,000 health workers will be engaged in the ten-day effort, said Dr Hemlal Sharma, a UNICEF health officer in Kabul.

UNICEF officials said that the neonatal tetanus and measles - easily preventable diseases - still remained serous health problems in Afghanistan.

"Ninety-six percent of districts in Afghanistan are classified as high risk for neonatal tetanus, but many cases that occur go unrecognized and unreported," Sharma, told IRIN.

The joint campaign involves both a house-to-house strategy to immunise mothers aged 15-45 years against tetanus and a fixed centre strategy to immunise children aged 9- 59 months, according to the WHO.

The neonatal tetanus death rate is estimated at 10 per 1,000 live births in Afghanistan. This translates into around 10,000 deaths each year in the country, according to UNICEF.

WHO estimated that 30,000-35,000 children under the age of five died as a result of measles in 2000 in Afghanistan. Successive immunisation initiatives over the last few years led to a 94 per cent reduction in 2004 in measles deaths with 559 children succumbing to the disease.

"Unfortunately, Afghanistan has experienced an outbreak of measles in the last two years with 836 cases reported in 2005 and 1,835 cases reported so far this year," said Aleem Siddique, UNAMA's spokesman in Kabul.

Measles is an acute, contagious viral disease, usually occurring in childhood and characterised by an eruption of red spots on the skin, fever and catarrhal symptoms, health experts say.

Polio is re-emerging in Afghanistan, one of just four countries in the world where polio is endemic. It has seen 29 cases of polio this year compared to only nine in 2005. So children under the age of five will also be vaccinated against crippling polio virus in this campaign.

Deteriorating security in the south and southeast, which is blamed on Taliban militants who were toppled by US-led coalition in 2001, has made it difficult for the government and aid organisations to reach the most vulnerable communities, officials say.