Afghanistan returnees provided free polio vaccination: Health Ministry

Photo used for representation purpose only.  

The Health Ministry has decided to vaccinate returnees from Afghanistan with free polio vaccines as a preventive measure, tweeted Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya on Sunday. The Union Minister also attached a photo of the vaccine drive already underway at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi.

Providing details on why India is keen to vaccinate people returning from Afghanistan, a senior Health Ministry official explained that India received its “polio-free certification” along with the entire southeast Asia region on March 27, 2014. However, wild polio virus cases continue to be reported in neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan — the last two polio-endemic countries in the world.

“Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world,” the World Health Organization (WHO) has noted.

There are three types of wild polio viruses (WPV) — type 1, type 2, and type 3. Wild polio viruses are naturally occurring isolates known or believed to have circulated persistently in a community. The WHO has said that people need to be protected against all three types of the virus in order to prevent the occurrence of polio disease, and polio vaccination is the best protection.

“Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only countries where wild polio virus is circulating and vaccination of those coming in [from Afghanistan] will ensure that people harbouring the virus will not be able to infect those around them. Afghanistan has suffered because of its compromised [disease] surveillance and healthcare system. The move by the government is vital in ensuring India’s status as a polio-free country,” said Lalit Kant, former head of Epidemiology and Communicable Diseases, Indian Council of Medical Research.

India’s Pulse Polio Immunisation Programme was rolled out on October 2, 1994 when the country accounted for around 60% of global polio cases. The last polio case in India was reported a decade ago in Howrah on January 13, 2011 and the country has been free of polio since.

The WHO has said that if enough people in a community are immunised, the virus would be deprived of susceptible hosts and would die out. High levels of vaccination coverage have to be maintained to stop transmission and prevent outbreaks from occurring.

Child vaccination drives, including polio campaigns, were halted in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in March 2020 to avoid the risk of COVID-19 transmission to children, caregivers, and the vaccinators themselves. According to UNICEF, polio immunisation campaigns were resumed in Afghanistan and Pakistan several months after COVID-19 left 50 million children without their polio vaccine. The group noted that polio immunisation programmes restarted in three provinces of Afghanistan in July 2020.

As a result, 34 polio cases were reported in Afghanistan, and 63 polio cases were reported in Pakistan, in 2020, including in some previously polio-free parts of the country, UNICEF said.

“While the polio vaccination drive was happening smoothly in Afghanistan with the help of various global entities, the last six months has seen escalated violence [in Afghanistan], which has caused almost all health drives, including vaccination, to be derailed. Previously, it was mandatory [for Afghan nationals] to be vaccinated for polio to secure a visa to enter India. Now, with [Indian] embassy shut and the healthcare system under deep stress, this latest move by India [to provide free polio vaccination on arrival] is a welcome step,” said Jalaluddin Akbar, student of Development and Labour Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Recently, WHO also expressed concern over the COVID-19 situation in Afghanistan, and the pace of vaccination in that country as the Taliban took over. “As the situation in Afghanistan continues to deteriorate rapidly, WHO is extremely concerned over the unfolding safety and humanitarian needs in the country, including the risk of disease outbreaks and a rise in COVID-19 transmission,” WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said during briefing earlier.

The WHO’s statement comes days after reports emerged of the Taliban banning COVID-19 vaccines in some areas.

Some countries, including the U.K., have said they would be offering COVID-19 vaccines to Afghan refugees.

58 crore vaccinated

On Sunday, the Health Ministry said India’s cumulative COVID-19 vaccination coverage has crossed 58 crore. A statement from the Ministry said, “With the administration of 52,23,612 vaccine doses in the last 24 hours, India’s COVID-19 vaccination coverage has surpassed the cumulative figure of 58.14 Cr (58,14,89,377) as per provisional reports till 7 a.m. today. This has been achieved through 64,39,411 sessions.”

It also said testing capacity across the country continues to be expanded. “The last 24 hours saw a total of 15,85,681 tests being conducted. India has so far conducted over 50.62 Cr (50,62,56,239) cumulative tests,” added the release.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 6:58:13 AM |

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