Taliban stops female health workers deliver polio
Photo: WHO

Taliban Launches Polio Vaccine Campaign

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – The Taliban, in collaboration with international organizations, has launched the second phase of a countrywide polio vaccination campaign. 

The Taliban Ministry of Public Health announced that the vaccination campaign kicked off today, February 26, and is scheduled to run for four days. Its goal is to immunize over 7.6 million children under the age of 5 in 21 provinces across Afghanistan.

According to the Taliban-controlled Bakhtar News Agency, Qalandar Ebad, the Taliban’s Public Health Minister, expressed the ministry’s commitment to eradicating polio in Afghanistan through continuous efforts and collaborative initiatives with international organizations.

Afghanistan and its neighbouring country, Pakistan, remain the last two countries grappling with endemic polio—an incurable and highly infectious disease capable of causing crippling paralysis and even fatalities in young children.

The virus grows in the intestinal system and is shed through feces. The infection typically spreads in areas with poor water and sewage sanitation, and the disease is only preventable by safe and effective vaccines.

Polio has been virtually eradicated globally through decades of campaign and vaccination efforts. However, the challenges of insecurity, poverty, mass displacement, limited awareness about the disease, and suspicions of external interference have impeded large-scale vaccination campaigns, particularly in Afghanistan and certain regions of Pakistan in the past years.

In Afghanistan, polio has been exclusively spreading in two eastern provinces, Nangarhar and Kunar, which share a border with Pakistan. It’s noteworthy that so far this year, no positive cases of polio have been registered in Afghanistan. However, last year recorded six positive cases, all in the eastern Nangarhar province.

Prior to the takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban had frequently prohibited door-to-door immunization efforts and targeted vaccination workers in the southern and eastern regions of the country.

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 regime 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 in 2022, and nine  the year before. 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 World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) remain the two major implementers of the door-to-door vaccination efforts in most parts of Afghanistan. According to UNICEF, 9.4 million children were vaccinated throughout the country last year, slightly below the target of 10 million.