A region that has seen its share of suffering in recent decades is starting to see more.
According to media reports, a polio outbreak that stretches across the shared border between Afghanistan and Pakistan continues to grow, despite renewed efforts to expand vaccination programs in the area. Although the disease remains endemic in both countries, the current outbreak has likely been made worse by ongoing conflict—owing in part to the presence of the US military in Afghanistan since 2001—and political turmoil, given that Pakistan experienced a contentious national election in 2018.
“Conflict is certainly 1 of the main reasons we see outbreaks of diseases such as polio, but it is not the only reason,” Sona Bari, resource mobilization and communications coordinator for the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Polio Eradication initiative, told Contagion®. “After every political transition, there’s always a period of catching up in terms of providing services, but because polio eradication depends on vaccinating every child, anytime you have children left unprotected it creates a problem. Needless to say, we are concerned and monitoring the situation in [both countries] now.”
Launched in 1988, the Polio Eradication initiative has made significant progress in increasing vaccine uptake and, thus, eliminating the virus from much of the developed world. However, the current outbreak suggests efforts may have taken a step back—at least in these 2 countries. According to WHO figures, there are 41 confirmed cases of polio in Pakistan to date in 2019—up from 12 in all of 2018; Afghanistan, meanwhile, had 21 confirmed cases last year and has 10 so far this year.
Among the issues, experts on the ground say, is distrust of health care providers within local communities. Earlier this year, for example, false rumors spread on social media, as first reported by The New York Times, suggesting that children receiving the polio vaccine experienced fainting spells. “Fake news” aside, it doesn’t help that there are real issues with proper and professional medical practice in Pakistan, as Contagion® reported in June.