When scientists set a 2018 target for eradicating polio last month, fresh memories of the violence against vaccinators offset the optimism. Short, low-profile campaigns--almost guerilla-like--were proposed as the safest way to vaccinate. Now the situation in Afghanistan might be improving.
Weeks after the Afghan government began a push to immunize more than 8 million children, one of the main opposition groups--the Taliban--has changed its stance on polio vaccinations. In the past the Taliban was violently opposed to immunization campaigns--forcing the government to stop vaccinating in Nuristan--but it now apparently accepts the need to protect against polio.
In a statement seen by the Telegraph, the Taliban--writing under the name the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan--said: "According to the latest international medicine science, the polio disease can only be cured by preventive measures, i.e. the anti-polio drops and the vaccination of children against this disease. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan supports and lends a hand to all those programs which works for the health care of the helpless people of our country." The statement calls on Taliban fighters to give polio workers "all necessary support."
Caveats are built into the U-turn though. The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF are advised to run vaccination campaigns in keeping with regional conditions, local cultural traditions and Islamic values. Taliban leaders also want vaccine campaigns to use "unbiased people." The line appears to be a reference to the alleged running of a fake vaccination campaign in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Fears that all vaccine campaigns are fronts for U.S. intelligence--or efforts to sterilize Muslim children--have contributed to opposition to immunization.
Continued opposition could have derailed vaccination plans, as it has in parts of Africa. Violence in Somalia has effectively stopped vaccine campaigns in some parts of the country, resulting in the recent recording of its first case of wild polio since 2007. The case is the first occurrence of wild polio outside of Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan--which have always had the disease--in 2013, Nature reports. Genetic analysis linked the case to northern Nigeria, a country which has seen the consequences of violent opposition to vaccines firsthand.