Afghanistan will restart nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to assist the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline workers, the UN said on Monday.
The World Health Organization and Unicef said the vaccination drive would begin on 8 November with Taliban support.
“WHO and Unicef welcome the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccination across Afghanistan,” the UN statement read.
“The Taliban leadership has expressed their commitment for the inclusion of female frontline workers.”
The announcement is a turnaround from the Islamists’ stance during the two decades of insurgency against the previous US-backed government. Past vaccination campaigns have been hampered in areas controlled by Islamic State or the Taliban, with frontline workers being killed. The pandemic also caused jabs to be paused.
“After consultation with the UN the government will start the polio vaccination campaign with both female and male workers and we will provide security to the entire polio vaccination team workers across the country,” Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the Guardian.
In the past three years there has been a significant rise in polio cases, and the effort to eradicate the disease in Afghanistan is an escalating challenge.
Attempts have also been made by clerics and tribal elders to debunk myths around polio vaccines prevalent among the Taliban and IS.
In the past, polio vaccination campaigns have been viewed with suspicion, accused by some of being used by foreigners to spy on insurgents or to undermine Islamic traditions. Some tribal leaders spread the idea that the vaccine caused infertility and polio workers have been targets of violence in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last two countries in the world to have cases of the polio virus in children, which can lead to paralysis or even death. According to Unicef, 56 new cases of polio virus were reported in Afghanistan last year, the highest number since 2011.
“This decision will allow us to make a giant stride in the efforts to eradicate polio,” said Hervé Ludovic De Lys, Unicef representative in Afghanistan.