For the first time in three years, the Taliban has agreed to allow health workers from the United Nations to begin a nationwide polio vaccination campaign in Afghanistan, according to the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
The door-to-door campaign, in which health workers go from one house to another to administer vaccines, is scheduled to begin next month across the country. The Taliban has not yet confirmed the announcement from UNICEF and the WHO, according to the Associated Press.
Afghanistan is one of only two countries, along with Pakistan, where polio is still endemic. Vaccination campaigns there have long been hindered by Taliban opposition and vaccine hesitancy.
There are 10 million children under the age of five in Afghanistan, a third of whom have not had access to vaccines in recent years because of violence and a Taliban prohibition on vaccinators operating in areas under their control.
“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, the WHO regional director overseeing Afghanistan, in a press release. “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.”
Aid organizations have battled misinformation and rampant conspiracy theories about Western vaccination campaigns seeking to sterilize Muslim children. Others claim vaccinators are spies, a lingering legacy of the CIA using a fake vaccination campaign to find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
And when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March 2020, the WHO ordered a pause of its campaigns to ensure that health workers weren’t inadvertently spreading COVID-19.
Experts had worried that the lack of widespread vaccinations could lead to an eruption of polio cases, which had been ticking up in 2019 and 2020.
But only one case of wild polio has been reported so far in 2021, the WHO said, making this an “extraordinary opportunity” to eradicate the disease.
The Taliban has also agreed in principle to the need for vaccinations against measles and COVID-19, according to the WHO. The Taliban has also reportedly said it is committed to allowing women to participate as frontline workers — and guarantees the safety of health workers across the country.
The commitments appear to be part of the Taliban’s efforts toward building international legitimacy as a government. The U.S. and other countries have urged the Taliban to allow humanitarian agencies freer access to parts of the country in need of aid.