Taliban ends its ban on door-to-door polio vaccinations

·3 min read
Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination to children in Kandahar, Afghanistan - MUHAMMAD SADIQ/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Afghan health workers administer polio vaccination to children in Kandahar, Afghanistan - MUHAMMAD SADIQ/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The Taliban have ended their ban on door-to-door polio vaccination in Afghanistan following their victory over the internationally-backed government.

Vaccination teams will next month be able to conduct a full house-to-house polio drop drive for the first time in more than three years.

Taliban military leaders had banned door-to-door visits in 2018, after accusing vaccination teams of acting as spies to gather intelligence for air strikes and special forces raids on Taliban fighters.

The former insurgents have now ended their ban after their stunning defeat of Ashraf Ghani's government and the departure of America and its Nato allies ended the war and left them largely unopposed.

“This decision will allow us to make a giant stride in the efforts to eradicate polio,” said Hervé Ludovic De Lys, representative of the United Nations children's body in Afghanistan. “To eliminate polio completely, every child in every household across Afghanistan must be vaccinated, and with our partners, this is what we are setting out to do,” he said.

The ban was instituted from the top of the Taliban military hierarchy after the group became suspicious that commanders had been hit by air strikes immediately after the visit of polio teams.

Three years of negotiations with the United Nations and assurances that the programme was non-military failed to shift the Taliban's stance. The ban meant vaccination teams could not reach some 3.3m Afghan children.

Dr Hamid Jafari, the director of polio eradication for the World Health Organization in the region said the Taliban had always been committed to polio eradication.

“I think we were in a particular situation of conflict and their security considerations in which they were concerned about the movement of house to house teams and vaccination,” he told the Telegraph.

“That situation of conflict and security has obviously changed drastically now they are the controlling authority in the country. That's a huge shift in what led to the initial ban and the restriction of vaccination. They have always been committed to polio eradication and to providing polio vaccine, except that earlier on their security concerns were overriding and overarching. That equation has changed.”

Epidemiologists had feared the pause in door-to-door operations would allow the wild polio virus to run riot through millions of unprotected children.

Instead Afghanistan has only reported one case of wild poliovirus in 2021. Experts believe some Afghan children out of reach of vaccinators may have been getting drops when they migrated through larger cities, or across the border into Pakistan.

“With only one case of wild poliovirus reported so far in 2021, Afghanistan has an extraordinary opportunity to eradicate polio,” a WHO statement said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two remaining countries harbouring cases of the wild poliovirus. While global health officials are confident the scourge can be beaten, the “last mile” to eradication has proven stubbornly hard.

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