KABUL - In a country where insurgents have for years attacked and killed people working for the government or the international community, a small army of vaccination teams connected to both have gone through some of the most dangerous areas, mostly safely.
Appointed by the government, paid for by international agencies, and given free passage by the Taliban, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s 65,000 volunteers and workers had seemed to have nearly wiped out the disease - until recently.
After years of steady decline, only 25 polio cases were reported in the country in 2010, prompting one international health care official to declare that “Afghans are heroes.’’ Then last year, the number tripled to 76, officials said. Polio is highly contagious and specialists say that each detected case is an indicator of hundreds of silent ones, mainly children with mild infections who become carriers.
Polio is now considered endemic only to Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan - where cases also increased last year - and in northern Nigeria.
“This is a national tragedy to end up with a major polio outbreak,’’ said Dr. Bruce Aylward, the polio coordinator for the World Health Organization.
President Hamid Karzai yesterday in effect blamed the Taliban. “Those who stand in the way of vaccination are the true enemies of our children’s future,’’ he said.
But health care officials said they had experienced no change in the militants’ tolerance for the vaccination efforts.
Internationally, doctors are deeply concerned about the polio increase - not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also in Nigeria.