Taliban launches annual polio vaccination drive in Afghanistan
The Taliban administration in Afghanistan has launched the annual polio inoculation campaign aimed at reaching more than nine million children under the age of five, the health ministry said.
Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries with endemic polio, an incurable and highly infectious disease that can cause crippling paralysis – and even death – in young children.
Polio has been virtually eliminated globally through a decades-long inoculation drive. But insecurity, inaccessible terrain, mass displacement and suspicion of outside interference have hampered mass vaccination in Afghanistan and some areas of Pakistan.
Nek Wali Shah Momin, director of Afghanistan’s National Emergency Operation Center (EOC) for Polio Eradication, said many more areas could now be reached since the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021 and the fighting stopped.
The EOC is led by the health ministry and includes international agencies including the World Health Organization and the United Nations’ children’s agency.
The ministry said the campaign that started on Monday will cover 31 of the country’s 34 provinces and last four days. The vaccination was postponed in the remaining three provinces due to extremely cold weather, health ministry spokesman Sharafat Zaman told reporters.
“Fortunately, we do not have any positive cases this year,” the spokesman added.
Last year, two cases of the wild type of poliovirus were detected in Afghanistan.
While the Taliban has in recent months banned many female NGO workers and stopped women from attending universities and most high schools, EOC director Momin said female vaccinators were working on the campaign.
He said women were crucial to accessing children who were often at home with their female caregivers who were usually not comfortable interacting with male vaccinators.
In areas where vaccination teams had to travel longer distances, Momin said authorities had required female staff to have a male chaperone. He said they had recruited and trained male family members of the female vaccinators to join the teams’ vaccination efforts.
Some armed factions have targeted vaccination efforts in the past. In 2022, eight workers were killed in attacks in northern Afghanistan.
“The support of all Afghans, including parents, community leaders, ethnic elders and religious leaders, is critical to eradicate polio and we want them to take part in the fight,” the Taliban’s acting health minister Qalandar Ebad said.
Vaccination campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan often encounter difficulties due to conspiracy theories that polio vaccination causes infertility or that the vaccinators are being used as spies.
Before seizing power over the entire country in 2021, the Taliban had banned door-to-door vaccinations in the areas they controlled. But the UN successfully negotiated with the Taliban to resume the programme.
Some health experts said the role of the Taliban, whose stated goal is to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law, could help encourage the acceptance of vaccination in conservative areas around the region.
“Religious leaders’ role in the polio elimination drive in both Pakistan and Afghanistan is crucial … the active participation of the Taliban in polio campaigns is a very positive and major development,” said Rana Jawad Asghar, an epidemiology expert and CEO of Pakistan-based consultancy Global Health Strategists and Implementers.