Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and highly infectious disease.
Health workers in Afghanistan will begin a house-to-house polio vaccination drive next month after the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund said.
“WHO and UNICEF welcome the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccination across Afghanistan,” they said in a statement on Monday.
Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and highly infectious disease transmitted through sewage that can cause crippling paralysis 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.
The UN agencies noted that only one case of wild poliovirus had been reported in Afghanistan since the start of the year, providing “an extraordinary opportunity to eradicate polio”.
“Restarting polio vaccination now is crucial for preventing any significant resurgence of polio within the country and mitigating the risk of cross-border and international transmission,” they said.
First in more than three years
The campaign, due to start on November 8, will be the first in more than three years aimed at all children in Afghanistan, including more than 3 million in remote and previously inaccessible areas.
“This decision will allow us to make a giant stride in the efforts to eradicate polio,” Hervé Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
“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 second campaign, due to begin in coordination with a campaign in Pakistan in December, has also been agreed to.
According to figures compiled before the collapse of the Western-backed government in August, there was one reported case of the wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) in Afghanistan in 2021, compared with 56 in 2020.
However, until the disease is eliminated entirely, it remains a threat to human health in all countries, especially those with vulnerable health systems, because of the risk of importing the disease.
Since the Taliban swept back into power two months ago, the UN had been talking with the group’s leadership to address the towering health challenges in the country, the statement said.
“The Taliban leadership has expressed their commitment for the inclusion of female frontline workers,” it said.
Afghanistan’s new rulers had also committed to “providing security and assuring the safety of all health workers across the country, which is an essential prerequisite for the implementation of polio vaccination campaigns,” the agencies said.
That marks a dramatic about-face from the group’s position during their years of fighting against the Western-backed government.
Due mainly to Taliban opposition to door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which they suspected were being used to spy on their activities, no campaigns with countrywide reach have been carried out in more than three years.
Taliban leaders often told communities in areas they controlled that vaccines were a Western conspiracy aimed at sterilising Muslim children.