Photo: Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

Polio Vaccines Reach Western Afghanistan Ahead of Winter

The last round of a countrywide polio vaccination campaign began on Sunday, September 24, the Taliban’s Public Health Department in Herat said. The four-day drive is expected to immunize 1.5 million children under the age of five in western provinces.

The last leg of the year-round campaign comes following the vaccination round in the north, which began on August 28.

The annual polio vaccination campaign was launched in March attempting to reach more than nine million children in the country’s 28 out of 34 provinces amid a worsening humanitarian crisis. 

The U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) remain the two major implementors of the door-to-door vaccination efforts in most parts of the country.

In June, WHO announced that it has established 37 sites across Afghanistan to collect and test sewage samples for poliovirus. The agency said it was to expand its environmental surveillance system toward polio eradication.

Poliomyelitis, or polio, is a highly infectious viral disease. While most polio cases are asymptomatic, the virus can cause paralysis or death. The disease is only preventable by safe and effective vaccines.

Children in Afghanistan have particularly been affected by the expanding humanitarian crisis since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. According to the WHO, malnutrition is above the emergency level in more than two-thirds of the country. Last week, the Asian Development Bank earmarked half of its new $400 million grant for Afghanistan for UNICEF to provide critical health services, particularly targeting children in 10 provinces.

Although there have been only five positive cases of polio registered this year, health experts have warned about a potential outbreak given the country’s fragile healthcare system. All the confirmed cases were in the eastern Nangarhar province, bordering Pakistan, the only other country where polio is still endemic. Decades of conflict and weak public health infrastructure and immunization services have hampered efforts to eradicate the virus.

The number of confirmed cases is higher than in 2022 when the country registered only two positive cases of polio, the lowest in the country’s recorded history of combating the virus. In 2020, there were 56 cases reported across the country, the spike caused mostly by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted immunization programs.

Historically, the Taliban have targeted vaccination workers and denied vaccination access to areas under their control during their insurgency against the former government. After reports confirmed that the initial intelligence for the 2011 American strike that killed Osama Bin Laden was gathered by a vaccinator, the Taliban also doubled down on its restrictions on immunization health workers. In 2018, the group’s ban on polio vaccination prevented more than three million children from receiving the vaccine.

Although the group has allowed an inoculation campaign since its takeover in August 2021, violence against health workers still prevails. According to the U.N., at least eight polio vaccinators were killed last year, and nine a year earlier. It is not clear if the Taliban were behind the attacks.

In some cases, the Taliban have also stopped female health workers from delivering vaccines, in line with the group’s ban on women’s employment.

The U.N. Global Polio Eradication Initiative set a goal to end all types of polio in 2023, but the job is far from finished in Afghanistan.