In an effort to eradicate polio and boost health measures for children in Afghanistan, the Taliban government has agreed to restart a door-to-door vaccination program next month, and will allow women to be frontline workers in the drive, health officials announced Tuesday.
The announcement, by the World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund, is a breakthrough in a country that has been called the “world’s polio capital,” a place where vaccinators have faced the twin challenges of a lack of access to patients and deadly violence.
The five-day nationwide program to distribute the polio vaccine, which is given orally and in multiple doses, will begin Nov. 8, according to officials. The drive aims to reach about 10 million children, according to Dr. Hamid Jafari, head of polio eradication for the WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region.
More than 3.3 million children had previously “remained inaccessible to vaccination campaigns,” according to the statement announcing the drive. Children who are 6 months to 59 months old will also be given vitamin A supplements during the campaign, officials said.
Word of the agreement comes as the Taliban have been showing some limited flexibility in dealings with the outside world as the government seeks desperately needed aid amid an ailing economy and increasing food scarcity.
In addition to this polio vaccination program, “all parties have agreed on the need to immediately start measles and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns,” the statement from the groups said. And a second polio vaccination program in Afghanistan will be synchronized with one in neighboring Pakistan that is scheduled to begin in December, it said.
Half a dozen more vaccination programs are scheduled to begin next year, according to Jafari.
In announcing the vaccination program, health officials said the Taliban “expressed their commitment” to allow women to be frontline workers in the drive and “for providing security and assuring the safety of all health workers across the country.”
Jafari said that tens of thousands of women were expected to work in the vaccination effort, as vaccinators, supervisors and managers.
The announcement comes months after several women working as polio vaccinators were killed, stifling efforts to inoculate children against the disease. In March, three women working for the government’s polio vaccine campaign were shot dead in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, local officials said.
“UNICEF is outraged by this attack,” the organization said at the time. “Frontline health workers should never be a target of violence.”
Around the same time of the shootings, there was an explosion at the city’s regional hospital, near the compound where the vaccines are stored, officials said.
No group took credit for those attacks. But the Taliban have in the past expressed skepticism of door-to-door vaccination drives, saying they believed some vaccinators acted as spies.
The Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, two decades after the U.S.-led invasion of the country drove the group from power.
Health officials welcomed the Taliban’s support for the program.
“We’ve been working with them for decades,” Jafari said, noting that the Taliban controlled large parts of the country during their exile from power. The Taliban “have always been supportive of polio vaccination and eradication,” he said.
Dr. Ahmed al-Mandhari, the WHO’s regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said, “The urgency with which the Taliban leadership wants the polio campaign to proceed demonstrates a joint commitment to maintain the health system and restart essential immunizations to avert further outbreaks of preventable diseases.”
Restarting this vaccination program, said George Laryea-Adjei, UNICEF’s regional director for South Asia, is “a step closer toward achieving our shared hope of eradicating polio in the region.”
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