U.N. agencies are preparing to launch a polio vaccination campaign for all children under 5 in Afghanistan, a country where the potentially crippling disease persists despite a more than three-decade-long campaign that has nearly eradicated it worldwide.
Vaccine doses will begin to be administered in Afghanistan on November 8 for the first time in three years, now that the country’s new Taliban government has granted approval.
“This is a huge development that now we can go all across Afghanistan and deliver the vaccine house to house,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, the World Health Organization’s director of polio eradication for the Eastern Mediterranean region, told VOA.
Jafari described the upcoming campaign as “a real combination of excitement and extreme fear — excitement because it looks like a real opportunity to eradicate wild polio virus finally.”
Warning that the virus might still be “lurking in some hard-to-reach populations,” he said it’s critical that the WHO “maintain this momentum to vaccinate our children so that the virus has nowhere to go.”
“Both Afghanistan and Pakistan really actually need to switch gears,” Jafari declared.
Polio’s presence in Afghanistan and in neighboring Pakistan, where a U.N. polio vaccination effort begins in December, means the disease can still spread globally. Rotary International, which coordinates a global polio eradication program, predicts “hundreds of thousands of children could be paralyzed” if polio is not eliminated within 10 years.
The WHO announced the vaccination campaign on Tuesday, five days before the observance of World Polio Day, part of Rotary International’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
Since the GPEI began in 1988, when there were 350,000 cases in 125 countries every year, polio cases have been cut by 99.9%, according to Rotary International.
The Taliban prohibited teams organized by the U.N. from conducting door-to-door vaccinations in parts of Afghanistan under their control over the past three years.
The ban and the recently ended war in Afghanistan prevented vaccines from being administered to 3.3 million of the country’s 10 million children over that period.
The Taliban did not comment on the agreement, but Jafari said, “The Taliban have always been supportive of polio eradication. ... In fact, the polio education program started in Afghanistan when they were in government” previously from 1996 to 2001.
Jafari said the Taliban vaccination restriction “was imposed purely for considerations of security and the nature of conflict at the time, and that has now obviously changed drastically. So their commitment to support polio education remains, and this is an expression of that.”
He said the WHO has always “maintained dialogue” with the Taliban, in keeping with its “very neutral and impartial program” that enables children to be vaccinated “wherever they are.”
Carol Pandak, head of the PolioPlus program at Rotary International, said in an interview with VOA that GPEI continues to be successful, noting only two cases of polio have been detected in the recent past, one in Afghanistan and the other in Pakistan.
“We have gone the longest time ever since detecting a case of the wild poliovirus. We’ve reached almost nine months, but now is not the time to be complacent,” she cautioned. “We need to build on this progress. We need to continue immunizing children against polio, and we need to intensify our disease detection systems so that with so few cases we’ll be able to tell and prove that there is no polio circulating.”
Pandak said that while Rotary International was “cautiously optimistic” about the progress made this year, “we need to also focus on other diseases, especially for children, because some of their immunization campaigns have been canceled due to COVID. So we really need to be able to protect children from diseases such as polio, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Earlier this month, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus celebrated Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cervical cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, by acknowledging her “contribution to revolutionary advancements in medical science.”
The “HeLa cells” from Lacks, an African American, are the oldest and most used human cell line in existence. They were taken from her without permission at Johns Hopkins University in 1951 before her death, and their use has resulted in many other medical breakthroughs and research involving maladies such as AIDS and cancer.
Carol Pearson contributed to this article. Some information for this report also came from Reuters.