UN agencies are preparing to launch a polio vaccination campaign for all children under 5 years of age in Afghanistan, a country where a potentially dangerous disease persists despite a more than three-decade campaign that has almost eradicated it worldwide.
The vaccine doses will begin in Afghanistan on November 8, for the first time in three years, now that the country’s new government has granted approval.
“This is a big deal: we can now travel all over Afghanistan and deliver the vaccine from home to home,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, World Health Organization Director for Eradication of Polio in the Eastern Mediterranean, told Voice of America.
Jafari described the upcoming campaign as “a real combination of excitement and extreme fear – excitement, because it looks like a real opportunity to finally eradicate the wild polio virus.”
Warning that the virus may still “lurk in some hard-to-reach populations,” he said it is critical that WHO “backs up this momentum to vaccinate our children so the virus has nowhere to go.”
“Both Afghanistan and Pakistan really need to switch,” Jafari said.
The presence of polio in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where the UN polio vaccination campaign begins in December, means the disease could still spread around the world. Rotary International, which coordinates the global polio eradication program, predicts that “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eradicated within 10 years.
WHO announced a vaccination campaign on Tuesday, five days before World Polio Day, which is part of Rotary International’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
According to Rotary International, since the GPEI was established in 1988, when 350,000 cases were reported annually in 125 countries, the number of polio cases has decreased by 99.9%.
The Taliban have banned UN-sponsored groups from door-to-door vaccinations in parts of Afghanistan under their control for the past three years.
The ban and the recently ended war in Afghanistan prevented 3.3 million of the country’s 10 million children from being vaccinated during this period.
Support for the Taliban
The Taliban did not comment on the agreement, but Jafari said, “The Taliban have always supported the eradication of polio. … In fact, the polio education program started in Afghanistan when they were in the government, ”earlier from 1996 to 2001.
Jafari said the restriction on Taliban vaccinations “was imposed solely for reasons of security and the nature of the conflict at the time, and now that has obviously changed dramatically. So their commitment to supporting polio education remains, and this is an expression of that. ”
He said that WHO has always “maintained a dialogue” with the Taliban in accordance with its “very neutral and impartial program” which allows children to be vaccinated “wherever they are.”
Carol Pandak, head of PolioPlus at Rotary International, told VOA that GPEI continues to be successful, noting that only two cases of polio have been identified in the recent past, one in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan.
“We have passed the longest time since the detection of a case of wild poliovirus. We have reached almost nine months, but now is not the time to relax, ”she warned. “We need to build on this progress. We need to continue to immunize children against polio, and we need to strengthen our disease detection systems so that with so few cases, we can say and prove that polio is not circulating. ”
Pandak said that while Rotary International was “cautiously optimistic” about the progress made this year, “we also need to focus on other diseases, especially childhood diseases, because some of their immunization campaigns have been canceled due to COVID. So we really need to protect children from diseases like polio, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. ”
Earlier this month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated Henrietta Lax, a woman whose cervical cells were used to develop a polio vaccine, noting her “contributions to revolutionary advances in medical science.”
“HeLa” cells from Lax, an African American, are the oldest and most used human cell line in existence. They were taken from her without permission from Johns Hopkins University in 1951 before her death, and their use led to many other medical discoveries and research related to diseases such as AIDS and cancer.
Some of the information for this report came from Reuters.