Taliban to Resume Afghanistan’s House-to-House Polio Vaccination Campaign
taliban afghanistan polio
Visiting one neighbourhood after the other to vaccinate Afghan children against polio is the hope to eradicate the disease.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF welcome the decision made by Taliban to support the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccination across Afghanistan.

The vaccination campaign, which begins 8 November, will be the first in over three years to reach all children in Afghanistan, including more than 3.3 million children in some parts of the country who have previously remained inaccessible to vaccination campaigns.

A second nationwide campaign has also been approved and will be synchronized with Pakistan’s own polio campaign in December.

WHO officials have said that this is an “extremely important step in the right direction.” 

“We know that multiple doses of oral polio vaccine offer the best protection, so we are pleased to see that there is another campaign planned before the end of this year.  Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.  This must remain a top priority,” said WHO Representative in Afghanistan Dapeng Luo.  

Both WHO and UNICEF have made joint calls in August for the establishment of a “humanitarian airbridge” for the sustained and unimpeded delivery of much-needed medicines and supplies to millions of people in aid, following the rise to power of the Taliban. 

Taliban seeks international recognition with polio campaign 

Though WHO has called the resumed campaign a much-needed step forward, others have pointed out the Taliban’s desperate grab for international recognition.

“The Taliban are desperately seeking international recognition, that is for sure.  And, for that, they do seem to be trying to behave in a much civilized manner,” said Thomson Reuters journalist Shadi Khan, who has also contributed to Health Policy Watch.

Khan pointed out the efforts of the international humanitarian community in weakening the Taliban’s stance on polio vaccines, though these efforts are at odds with other extremist groups in the region.

“Over the past few years, the Taliban’s stance on polio vaccines has softened drastically thanks to the untiring efforts of the humanitarian community in engaging people at grassroots for awareness and immunization in Afghanistan as well as in the neighbouring Pakistan. However, hardliners among the Taliban and other extremist groups such as the so-called Islamic State Khorasan and others are seriously opposed to the vaccines as they see it part of the West’s alleged conspiracy against Muslims. Such individuals and groups continue to have significant clout in Afghanistan and can orchestrate deadly attacks even against mainstream Taliban like in a Kabul mosque”.

With opportunity to eradicate wild poliovirus, vaccination remains crucial 

Inactivated polio vaccine

With only one case of wild poliovirus reported so far in 2021, Afghanistan now has an opportunity to eradicate polio.

Pakistan and Afghanistan, both members of the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, are the only two polio-endemic countries in the world. 

While cases have declined dramatically, when compared to the 56 reported cases in 2020, surveillance continues to remain an issue in Afghanistan. 

This means that restarting the polio vaccination campaign remains crucial to preventing any significant resurgence of polio within the country and mitigating any potential risk of cross-border and international transmission. 

“This decision will allow us to make a giant stride in the efforts to eradicate polio,” said Hervé Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan.  

“To eliminate polio completely, every child in every household across Afghanistan must be vaccinated, and with our partners, this is what we are setting out to do,” he said.

In addition to the polio vaccine, children aged 6 to 59 months will also receive a supplementary dose of vitamin A in the months during the upcoming campaign. 

UN, WHO engaging with Taliban in supporting immunizations

The violence in Afghanistan has taken a toll on an already fragile health system.

The polio programme has already begun making preparations to rapidly implement the nationwide vaccination campaign, in the midst of ongoing high-level dialogue between the UN, WHO, and the Taliban. 

WHO officials have called it a win not only for Afghanistan, but for the region as a whole as it works to achieve wild poliovirus eradication.

“The urgency with which the Taliban leadership wants the polio campaign to proceed demonstrates a joint commitment to maintain the health system and restart essential immunizations to avert further outbreaks of preventable diseases,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. 

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus noted last month that engaging with the new government is necessary to support the people of Afghanistan during this time, when the overall health system of the country remains vulnerable.

All parties have agreed on the need to immediately start measles and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns, which will be complemented with the support of the polio eradication programme and other outreach activities that will urgently begin to deliver other life-saving vaccinations. 

For their part, Taliban leaders have promised to remove “impediments” to aid, to protect humanitarian workers, and to safeguard aid offices, according to a 15-point proposal addressed to the UN’s humanitarian aid coordination arm, OCHA, and signed by the Taliban’s acting minister of foreign affairs, Amir Khan Muttaqi.

Image Credits: Canada in Afghanistan/UNICEF/Flickr, Flickr – Sanofi Pasteur, British Red Cross/Twitter.

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