ISTANBUL, Turkey (AP) — U.N. agencies are gearing up to vaccinate all of Afghanistan’s children under 5 against polio for the first time since 2018, after the Taliban agreed to the campaign, the World Health Organization says.
For the past three years, the Taliban barred U.N.-organized vaccination teams from doing door-to-door campaigns in parts of Afghanistan under their control, apparently out of suspicion they could be spies for the government or the West. Because of the ban and ongoing fighting, some 3.3 million children over the past three years have not been vaccinated.
The Taliban’s reported agreement now, after becoming the rulers of Afghanistan, appeared aimed at showing they are willing to cooperate with international agencies. The longtime militant insurgent force has been trying to win the world’s recognition of its new government and re-open the door for international aid to rescue the crumbling economy.
The Taliban leadership did not confirm its agreement, and Taliban officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
But WHO and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said in a statement Monday that they welcomed the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccinations across the country.
Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The disease can cause partial paralysis in children. Since 2010, the country has been carrying out regular inoculation campaigns in which workers go door to door, giving the vaccine to children. Most of the workers are women, since they can get better access to mothers and children.
But large sections of the country have been out of their reach in recent years. In parts of the south, particularly, the ban by the Taliban was in effect. In other areas, door-to-door campaigns were impossible because of fighting between the government and the insurgents, or because of fears of kidnappings or roadside bombs. In some places, hard-line clerics spoke out against vaccinations, calling them un-Islamic or a Western plot.
WHO said a new nationwide vaccination campaign will begin on Nov. 8, followed by another synchronized with Pakistan’s polio vaccination campaign in December.
The estimated target population is Afghanistan’s 10 million children under 5, including the more than 3.3 million who could not be reached since 2018, Dr. Hamid Jafari, WHO's director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told The Associated Press.
“Restarting polio vaccination in all areas of Afghanistan now will prevent a major resurgence of polio outbreaks within the country and ensure there is no international spread,” Jafari said.
“This is an extremely important step in the right direction,” said Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan. He said it was a good sign that multiple campaigns are planned. "Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.”
On March 30, three women were gunned down in two separate attacks as they carried out door-to-door vaccinations in the eastern city of Jalalabad. It was the first time vaccination workers have been killed in a decade of door-to-door inoculations against the disease in Afghanistan.
Such attacks have been more common in Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccinators and security personnel connected to vaccination campaigns have been killed since 2011.
Jafari said the Taliban's previous ban in its areas was “mainly for security reasons,” not out of opposition to vaccinations themselves. The Taliban, he said, have committed to “the absolute protection and security of all health workers and all frontline workers” in the campaign.
In Pakistan, officials have struggled to overcome deep public suspicion over vaccines particularly since the U.S. used a fake vaccination campaign to unearth the hideout of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. Hard-line clerics and militants have stoked the fears by depicting polio vaccinations as a Western plot to sterilize Muslim children.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have seen an increase in cases. In Afghanistan, 56 new polio cases were reported in 2020, the highest number since 2011, when 80 cases were registered. Only one case of the wild virus has been reported in 2021 in Afghanistan.
“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.
A supplementary dose of vitamin A will also be provided to children aged 6 to 59 months during the upcoming campaign.
Jafari said the Taliban government had agreed on three key aspects — security for health workers and vaccinators, mobilization of health authorities and the new leadership for the campaign, and communications through religious, tribal and community leaders and media to build trust in the campaign.
He urged families not to be suspicious of the vaccinators going house to house, saying the only intention is to protect children. “They should trust the program. They should trust the vaccine.”