India and Afghanistan Bowl Out Polio Together at ICC T20 World Cup
Indian and Afghanistan cricketers go head-to-head for the first time ever 1 May in the International Cricket Council World Twenty20 Tournament. But off the field, the teams are putting their bats aside to join forces to “Bowl Out Polio” in India and Afghanistan – two of only four countries remaining in the world battling the transmission of this crippling virus.
Indian Batsman Suresh Raina and Afghan Captain Nowroz Mangal exchanged “Bowl Out Polio” cricket bats autographed by members of each team to show regional solidarity to eliminate the polio virus from India and Afghanistan. “It is our obligation as athletes to make sure every child has the opportunity to run and to play,” said Suresh Raina. “We are happy to come together with the Afghanistan team for this important cause.”
Polio is a virus which cripples and kills young children. While most of the world has been polio-free for years, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nigeria remain the only countries that have never stopped poliovirus transmission.
Progress is being made, particularly in India, where the most dangerous type 1 wild poliovirus (WPV1) has not been reported in the polio-endemic states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in a record five months. Afghanistan also has been free of WPV1 since 8 January. India has recorded 19 cases in 2010, compared to 36 at this time last year, while Afghanistan has recorded eight cases – two more than at this time last year. Globally, there have been 84 cases of polio this year, compared to 383 at this time in 2009.
As long as India and Afghanistan continue to see polio transmission, all of their neighbors are at high risk of re-infection. In recent weeks, both Nepal and Tajikistan have been re-infected with poliovirus. Rotary International and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are providing emergency funds to facilitate immediate outbreak response activities in these countries.
“India is very close to becoming polio-free,” said Karin Hulshof, UNICEF Representative in India. “Every parent in India needs to continue vaccinating their children with polio drops each time it is offered until they are five-years-old. Every dose holds the promise of a healthy childhood.”
Cricketers in India have been intensively involved with the polio eradication effort since 2003, when the “Bowl Out Polio” campaign was launched by Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Zaheer Khan. Today, players promote OPV vaccination nationally, and especially in the endemic states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Since 2007, more than 40 per cent of type 1 polio cases outside UP and Bihar in India have occurred in migrant communities, underlining how critical it is for children to be vaccinated before they travel. “If we do not end polio in India, the rest of the world will suffer,” said Indian captain MS Dhoni, “Every parent must vaccinate their children regardless of travel schedules, work or anything else in our busy lives. Nothing is more important than our children’s future.”
In Afghanistan, polio has been largely restricted to Helmand and Kandahar where access to children has been compromised by ongoing conflict. Limited female service providers, an inadequate health infrastructure and regular population movements across the border into polio-infected Pakistan are other difficulties faced.
Yet despite these challenges and dangers, every year thousands of dedicated vaccinators go door-to-door for six nationwide polio vaccination campaigns organized by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health with support from UNICEF, WHO, Rotary International and other partners. Sub-national campaigns are also held in areas with persistent transmission. In 2009, approximately 7.5 million children were reached with oral polio vaccine (OPV).
Education and OPV are considered to be inextricably linked in Afghanistan, and among the most critical rights for children’s development. “My future as a cricket player was secured a long time ago, when I was a child,” says Raees Ahmadzai, member of the Afghan Cricket Team and founder of Afghan Youth Cricket Support Organization (AYCSO). “Vaccination is essential to protect our children from the crippling disease of polio. Education is the social vaccine to boost our society. Both are essential for the future of both girls and boys.”
Today over 6.8 million children are enrolled in primary education, including 1.8 million girls. Simultaneously, demand for health services has also increased. “Educated girls are educated mothers, who will make the right decisions for their children. Together we can ‘bowl out polio and kick in education,” said Catherine Mbengue, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.
Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Director of the Polio Eradication Initiative at WHO, paid tribute to the Afghanistan and India cricket teams for raising awareness of this issue at such a critical time. “Right now we have the best chance we’ve ever had to end polio forever,” Dr Aylward said. The greatest threat to finishing the job remains a $1.4 billion funding gap to eradicate polio globally by end-2012. “These cricket stars are challenging the global community to stand up,” Dr Aylward said, “The world must not squander this unique opportunity to bowl out polio once and for all.”