Death is a great leveller: Taliban agree to mass vaccination against polio and a campaign against Covid 19

Women to be giving jabs in a frontline role

The Taliban’s ideological stance against women having an equal role with men has had to take a back seat in the face of a potential major health crisis in the country. For once the extremist leaders are finding out they can’t fight disease without the participation of women.

In what must be a welcome breakthrough following negotiations between the World Health Organisation and the Taliban the leaders have agreed to a country wide vaccination programme against polio and for a new campaign to fight Covid 19 and measles.

Failure to do so would have opened the country -already reeling from the loss of Western and humanitarian aid – to the spread of life threatening diseases which have all but disappeared in more advanced countries. The prospect of widespread deaths from unchecked diseases as well as growing hunger and poverty has focused minds.

The new deal was revealed in an announcement from the World Health Organisation today.

The vaccination campaign, which begins on November 8, will be the first in over three years to reach all children in Afghanistan, including more than 3.3 million children in some parts of the country who have previously remained inaccessible to vaccination campaigns.  A second nationwide polio vaccination campaign has also been agreed and will be synchronised with Pakistan’s own polio campaign planned in December.

WHO welcomes programme

“This is an extremely important step in the right direction,” said Dapeng Luo, WHO Representative in Afghanistan.  “We know that multiple doses of oral polio vaccine offer the best protection, so we are pleased to see that there is another campaign planned before the end of this year.  Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good.  This must remain a top priority,” he said.

So far there has been only one case of polio this year under the previous government but with no vaccination programme a resurgence of the disease was likely. Instead now it could be eradicated.

“This is not only a win for Afghanistan but also a win for the region as it opens a real path to achieve wild poliovirus eradication,” said Dr Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.  “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,” he said.

The overall health system in Afghanistan remains vulnerable.  To mitigate against the risk of a rise in diseases and deaths, all parties have agreed on the need to immediately start measles and COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.  This will be complemented with the support of the polio eradication programme and with outreach activities that will urgently begin to deliver other life-saving vaccinations through the national expanded programme for immunization.

The Taliban leadership has expressed their commitment for the inclusion of female frontline workers and for providing security and assuring the safety of all health workers across the country, which is an essential prerequisite for the implementation of polio vaccination campaigns.

WHO and UNICEF call on authorities and community leaders at all levels to respect and uphold the neutrality of health interventions and ensure unhindered access to children now and for future campaigns.

This is probably the one gleam of light in what has been an extremely bad autumn for the people of Afghanistan and a huge setback for women’s rights. The threat of mass deaths from preventable diseases has obviously alarmed the new regime.

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