'Afghanistan at risk of resurgence of polio, Covid'

'Afghanistan at risk of resurgence of polio, Covid'

Despite the achievements the country had over the past 20 years, the health of children and women has remained 'precarious'

Representative image. Credit: AFP File Photo

With the Taliban retaking Afghanistan last month, and international organisations pulling out funds, there is an increased risk of resurgence of polio, Covid-19 and other diseases there, which can have global implications, Nature reported.

Despite the achievements the country had over the past 20 years, the health of children and women has remained "precarious", Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, founding director of the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health and the Institute for Global Health and Development at the Aga Khan University in Pakistan wrote in the journal.

Soon after the Taliban was overthrown in 2001 by a US-led coalition, United Nations agencies launched nationwide measles-immunisation campaigns, targeting 17 million children.

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Till then, less than one in three Afghan children had received any immunisations.

The campaigns vaccinated 96 per cent of the targeted population in 2002 and 2003 and made further progress by 2014. But as the Taliban made inroads again, door-to-door visits by polio workers were banned.

"Polio cases in Afghanistan tripled between 2018 and 2020. Approximately three million children, a third of those eligible, were thus left out of vaccination campaigns," Bhutta said.

But now, with the complete takeover of the Taliban, Afghanistan has lost development funds from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the US has frozen nearly "$7 billion of Afghan government funds".

This means "there is no money to pay non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and health-care workers who deliver basic health services".

The country has a stockpile of about three million doses of Covid-19 vaccines -- and it "seems likely to expire".

All this can turn into a local humanitarian disaster with global implications.

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"I fear that it will now get precipitously worse. Both polio and Covid-19 infections in Afghanistan could spread to neighbouring countries. Until transmission is interrupted, the entire world is at risk," Bhutta wrote.

Bhutta implored the world countries to work with Kabul's new rulers to get polio and other diseases under control.

"The Taliban now running the country has an opportunity to show a pragmatic, reformist face to the world and people of Afghanistan: it needs to run the health system, to care more about protecting women and children than obsessing about spies and political opponents," he said.

One in three Afghans is currently also facing hunger.

"Funds are urgently needed to help secure food supplies through the winter, reopen financial services such as banks and let the estimated 500,000 people displaced this year return to their homes.

"Countries should formalise their support, and include provisions for health care in the agreements. They deserve unfettered support in this hour of need," Bhutta said.

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