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Pak-Afghan polio meeting cancelled over security threats

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ISLAMABAD: A meeting of officials of Pakistani and Afghan health departments in Kabul, which was also to be attended by representatives of UN agencies, was cancelled because of security concerns.

The meeting scheduled for Thursday and Friday was cancelled on the request of Afghan government. A proposal to hold the meeting in Islamabad is now being considered.

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries which have been transferring polio virus to each other. The major reason is their porous border which is about 2,500km long.

Although children are vaccinated at the border crossing points, a large number of people cross the border illegally through various routes and it is impossible to vaccinate them.

An official of the Ministry of National Health Services said that Afghanistan would be asked during the next meeting to carry out polio vaccination campaigns on the same days as in the border areas of Pakistan to stop transfer of the virus from one country to the other.

“The virus is travelling between the two countries because of the porous border as Pakistan is hosting 1.6 million Afghan refugees,” he said.

“Because of the refugees polio virus travels between the countries. Moreover, many times it happens that refugees enter Afghanistan before start of an anti-polio campaign in Pakistan and come back before start of a campaign in Afghanistan,” he said.

“Those persons are a major source of transfer of polio virus and polio cases are reported in their children or because of them,” he said.

“So it was suggested that anti-polio campaigns should start simultaneously on both sides of the border to ensure that not a single child is missed,” he said.

The official said all arrangements had been finalised and a delegation led by the Prime Minister’s Focal Person on Polio Eradication, Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq, was scheduled to go to Kabul on Thursday to attend the meeting that was to begin in the evening.

“Officials of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas were also part of the delegation. Moreover, representatives of UN agencies also had to go to Kabul,” he said.

“Members of the delegation were in Islamabad and ready to leave but they were informed by their Afghan counterparts that because of some intelligence information they had to wait till a security clearance,” he said.

“The venue of the meeting was the Afghan public health ministry in Kabul but then we were informed that arrangements were being made to hold it in a hotel. However, in the end we were informed by Afghan authorities that the meeting should be postponed because of security reasons,” he said.

The chief of the Emergency Operation Centre for Polio, Dr Rana Safdar, who was part of the delegation, said: “We are considering various options to hold the meeting. One option is that it should be held through video conferencing. Another is to hold it here early next month,” he said.

“In June, there are two meetings of a technical advisory group on polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan. We are also considering holding both those meetings in Islamabad along with the event cancelled this week,” he said.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2015

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