Polio vaccination campaign resumes in Afghanistan

The World Health Organization and the United Nations children’s agency have launched a four-day effort to vaccinate millions of children in Afghanistan against polio, the first campaign in three years.

The programme, announced by the Ministry of Public Health and backed by the Taliban, aims to address the 3.3 million children who have gone unvaccinated since 2018, the last time health workers were able to access limited areas of the country.

Increased fighting between the forces of the former Western-backed government and the Taliban made inoculation increasingly difficult over the last three years. Afghanistan remains one of only two countries where the disease is still endemic. The other is Pakistan.

With the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate controlling nearly all of the country, including the capital, Kabul, there are renewed hopes that the nation’s children can receive shots without fear for the safety of their families, health workers and volunteers involved in the campaigns.

Farida, a vaccinator in the city of Kabul, said she has been waiting for the last three years to properly begin her work, Al Jazeera reports. The 26-year-old spent Monday going from house to house in the city vaccinating children.

She said their original plan was for teams to fan out across the capital reaching as many families as possible. Initially, their goal was for each team to visit at least 100 houses each day, but she said overcrowding in Afghanistan’s urban centres meant that some of the teams have already had to double their daily goal.

She said most families have shown little hesitation so far, but that some families remain hesitant.

“Some families just lack the education. Others, though, believe a lot of the misinformation they hear from other people,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I’ve had some families say that the vaccine will somehow make their children rowdy or misbehave, but I keep telling them, ‘How a child acts is up to how they are raised, not medicine’.”

Having spent the last three years working on polio awareness and small vaccination efforts, Farida says 90 percent of Afghan households are aware of the disease and its dangers, which she says is a big help to the ministry’s efforts.

Farida said it is important that awareness campaigns continue across the country, so they can educate people who may believe conspiracy theories and false statements.

Involvement of women

The involvement of Farida and other young women in the inoculation campaign is also an important step at a time when the Taliban has come under fire for its unclear policies towards women returning to the workforce in Afghanistan.

Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report saying female aid workers had been banned from working in 31 of the nation’s 34 provinces.

Heather Barr, Associate Director of HRW’s Women’s Rights Division, says the inclusion of female vaccinators is a positive step, but that the Taliban must do all it can to ensure their safety, especially outside Kabul.

“It is imperative that female vaccinators can have a written statement from the Taliban to make sure that they won’t face any possible harassment when they’re out on the field,” Barr told Al Jazeera.

Barr says so far, the ability of female aid workers to go about their work was based on a verbal agreement from the Taliban leadership, but having a paper document would do more to protect them.

Shortly after taking power in August, the Taliban had called on female government workers to stay at home until it could assure that its forces would not discriminate against or harass them. Female health workers were quickly exempted from that order.

The latest round of inoculation efforts is a joint effort between the World Health Organization and UNICEF that has been backed by the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. In the past, such efforts were hindered by the 20-year war between the Western-supported Islamic Republic and the Taliban, which was the largest armed opposition group in the country.

In recent years, some residents in the districts of Nangarhar province were able to convince the Taliban to allow local groups to vaccinate children, but those efforts were limited in scope and required local elders to win the support of regional Taliban forces, which were often suspicious about the intention of such campaigns.

Now that the Taliban has taken over the country, its leadership has shown greater willingness for such efforts to resume.

In a statement released to the media, UNICEF’s Representative in Afghanistan, Hervé Ludovic De Lys said: “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.”

According to the WHO and UNICEF, the programme, which is aimed at children between the ages of six and 59 months, will be replicated in December.

The Taliban’s acceptance of the campaign has been seen as a positive sign of the group working with international organisations at a time when many nations and international organisations have shown hesitation towards direct involvement with the Islamic Emirate.

So far no nation, including Pakistan and Iran, which faced years-long accusations of aiding and abetting the Taliban when it was the armed opposition, has recognised the Islamic Emirate as the legitimate government of the country.