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The United Nations announced Monday that a nationwide house-to-house polio vaccination campaign in conflict-torn Afghanistan will recommence next month and hailed the new Taliban government for agreeing to lift a ban on such drives.
Afghanistan is one of two countries in the world, along with neighboring Pakistan, where the highly infectious and incurable disease continues to cripple children.
Officials on both sides documented only one infection each so far in 2021 of the wild poliovirus Type 1 (WPV1), the lowest-ever transmission seen at the same time in Pakistan and Afghanistan, compared to 84 and 56 cases respectively last year.
The house-to-house Afghan anti-polio campaign due to start November 8 is aimed at reaching around 10 million children under the age of 5 across the country, including more than 3 million in remote and previously inaccessible areas, according to the World Health Organization and U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.
The Taliban, who regained power in August, banned door-to-door vaccinations in April 2018 in areas under their control as they waged insurgent attacks against the ousted Western-backed Afghan government and international forces.
“Over this 3-and-a-half-year period, there were approximately 3.3 million children, some of whom could never be reached — or some of them inconsistently reached — with vaccination because of this ban,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, director of polio eradication for the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Region, told VOA.
He explained that the Taliban had seen polio teams’ house-to-house movement as a security risk for their fighters in the wake of the nature of the conflict at the time.
“They have now the controlling authority across the country, and there is not much active conflict right now. So, they (Taliban) have decided to continue their support for polio eradication and specially vaccination through house-to-house vaccination,” the WHO official said.
Jafari recalled the polio eradication program started in Afghanistan in the 1990s when the Taliban were in government and hailed the Islamist group for being supportive of the anti-polio efforts from the outset.
He stressed the need for aggressively implementing the anti-polio campaign, saying the low number of cases offer a “truly unique opportunity” to eradicate the virus from Afghanistan.
Jafari underlined the economic importance of the house-to-house campaign, saying it will be the first major mobilization of Afghan health workers for delivery of a nationwide vaccination service since the Taliban takeover of the country.
“In the current situation of real economic challenges, where many workers and people have not been paid their salaries, this campaign will be one activity in which a large number of the workforce will actually participate in vaccine delivery and will get paid for it,” he said.
WHO officials said a second campaign in Afghanistan, due to begin in coordination with a campaign in Pakistan in December, has also been agreed to.
Jafari cautioned that it is too early for both countries to celebrate that they are nearing polio eradication. He noted there are still several million children in Afghanistan who have not been administered polio drops in recent years, and there are areas in Pakistan where children still need to be inoculated against the virus.
“We have an unprecedented epidemiological opportunity right now to succeed in final polio eradication in both countries. The progress is encouraging, but it is very fragile, and both countries still have to work very hard. This is not a time to be complacent,” Jafari said.