March 25, 2007 08:00 ET

Massive Canadian-Funded Anti-Polio Drive to Immunize More Than Seven Million Children in Afghanistan

TORONTO, ONTARIO--(CCNMatthews - March 25, 2007) - A massive four-stage campaign to vaccinate more than seven million children under five years of age against the deadly polio virus will get under way in Afghanistan today. Tens of thousands of vaccinators, most of whom are volunteers, will deliver the life-saving oral polio vaccine to children in every region of the country.

Today's crucial effort, undertaken by the Government of Afghanistan, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), is funded with a US$1.5-million donation by the Government of Canada through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

Rough terrain, access problems, dispersed populations and harsh weather are some of the challenges facing vaccination teams. More than 40 districts, most in highland areas, still remain off-limits because of heavy snow and will be covered by immunization teams later in the year.

"In a country with limited health care infrastructure, no clinics or doctor's offices, these immunization campaigns are essential to UNICEF's work to save children's lives and preventing lifelong disability," says Nigel Fisher, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada. "We are grateful that the Government of Canada supports UNICEF's crucial work to save the lives of Afghan children."

When it was at its peak, polio paralyzed or killed up to almost half a million people globally a year. Thanks to a worldwide effort, polio cases have fallen to record low levels and the polio virus remains endemic in just four countries - India, Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2006, there were 31 confirmed cases of polio in Afghanistan - mostly in the south. Because the virus is highly contagious even one confirmed case of polio paralysis is treated as evidence of an epidemic.

UNICEF is also supporting efforts to broadcast educational messages to parents and community and religious leaders about the importance of polio prevention measures.

In 2001, Mr. Fisher led UNICEF's emergency operations for the children of Afghanistan and planned cross-border operations from neighbouring countries. In 2002, he was appointed as Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Relief, Recovery and Reconstruction in Afghanistan.

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