Taliban Changes Tune on Polio, Joins WHO Vaccination Campaign

AP Photo/Abdul Khaleq
AP Photo/Abdul Khaleq

The Afghanistan-Pakistan region is considered to be the last frontier for efforts to eradicate naturally-occurring polio cases, and the Taliban, a terrorist group that operates in both countries, has joined the final fight against the crippling and potentially deadly infectious disease.

“In the final battle against one of humanity’s oldest and most-feared maladies, an unlikely ally has emerged: the Taliban,” reports Bloomberg.

“The insurgent group, whose anti-government attacks have stoked insecurity in Afghanistan and hampered vaccinators, is working alongside local and international health authorities to wipe out the last vestiges of polio, marshaling thousands of people to immunize vulnerable children,” it adds. “In the country’s Taliban-controlled areas, their cooperation is crucial.”

The Taliban’s participation in Afghanistan’s polio vaccination program was reportedly negotiated by public health officials and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

It comes with a caveat: “That their own people do the vaccinating in Taliban-controlled areas,” Bloomberg learned from Mohammed Soghaier, a World Health Organization (WHO) doctor.

“Some areas are inaccessible except for Taliban, so we are requesting them to provide their own people or offer local people from these faraway areas to work with us,” explained Soghaier. “Not one of these groups is against polio vaccination. They are cooperatives, they trust us.”

“Polio won’t be eradicated without the Taliban’s help,” notes Bloomberg:

There are about 500,000 children younger than 5 years in Afghanistan who aren’t fully immunized against the virus, a quarter of whom live in areas deemed inaccessible to vaccinators, according to the WHO. Decades of war, insurgencies and border skirmishes, combined with one of the weakest health systems in the world, have allowed the virus to persist.

Polio is caused by the poliovirus. Wild poliovirus refers to cases that occur naturally. There are also less common cases of vaccine-derived polio.

Worldwide, cases of wild poliomyelitis, the disease’s official name, have dropped to a historic low this year.

“In 2015, wild poliovirus transmission is at the lowest levels ever, with fewer cases reported from fewer areas of fewer countries than ever before,” reports the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a global anti-polio partnership led by national governments and spearheaded by the WHO, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). “In 2015 so far, 66 wild poliovirus cases have been reported from two countries (49 Pakistan, 17 Afghanistan), compared to 324 cases from nine countries during the same period in 2014.”

So far this year, 23 cases of vaccine-derived polio have also been reported from seven countries, compared to 48 from five nations during the same period in 2014. Overall, 56 vaccine-derived polio cases were reported last year, the majority of them from Pakistan (22) and Nigeria (30), both considered endemic countries at the time.

“The crippling disease may be eradicated entirely by the end of next year if children can be protected where they were previously deemed too risky or difficult to reach,” notes Bloomberg.

In some of the most remote ares in Afghanistan, villagers are now “very willing” to be cured of one of humanity’s oldest and most-feared diseases, Obaidullah Elaj, a doctor working for the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, told Bloomberg.

“It’s a dreaded disease and requires collaboration from all parties to fight,” said Elaj, who reportedly acts as a the middleman between Taliban negotiators and WHO officials. “I am 100 percent happy to work alongside WHO and the government to fight polio, a disease affecting children in our isolated areas.”

Polio cases hit 350,000 in 1988. Since then, more than $11 billion has been spent on combating the virus globally. Worldwide, cases dropped to 359 in 2014.

“That leaves only two countries where polio transmission has never been stopped,” notes Bloomberg.

“After the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by U.S. forces with the cooperation of a doctor in Pakistan, polio workers and doctors were seen as spies by the Taliban and became specific targets with more than 100 of them killed or wounded in Afghanistan,” Bloomberg learned from Hedayatullah Stanekzai, a senior adviser with the country’s health ministry.

This month, the WHO revealed that 32 health care workers and other personnel involved in polio eradication efforts have been killed in Pakistan since 2012.

Elaj, the Taliban doctor, indicated that health care workers are no longer suspected of being spies by the Taliban.

“The Taliban in Afghanistan released a statement in 2013 supporting all health programs in the country, including polio eradication,” reports Bloomberg. “The cooperation is part of an effort to build trust among the general population, researchers said in a 2013 study on the challenge of violence in the final push to snuff out the disease, which has maimed and killed for much of human history.”

“We are not worried about the possibility of spies being among vaccinators because these are trusted people, introduced and hired on our recommendation,” Elaj told Bloomberg.


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