In a change of tactics, the Taliban has called off its attacks against health workers in Afghanistan, providing space for polio workers to finally eradicate the deadly disease.
The former leaders of Afghanistan have gone back and forth on allowing aid workers to administer the polio vaccine to Afghan children over the years. Last year, the group decided to allow the program to go forward so long as workers “not use government resources, including vehicles and soldiers, and they should use their own resources so that they impartially execute their program.” At the time, their spokesperson also claimed that the Taliban has always supported vaccinations.
That commitment was questioned yet again this year, when in March the Taliban halted the program in Afghanistan’s Nuristan province. “For the past three years Waygal district has been under the Taliban, they are very strong there. For the last two years the vaccine process went on in the district, but this year they stopped it,” Nuristan governor Tamim Nuristani told the Guardian at the time.
It seems, however, that the Talibs have had a change of heart once more. In a statement issued from “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” — the country’s full name when under Taliban rule — the vaccination push has been given the all-clear:
“According to the latest international medicine science, the polio disease can only be cured by preventive measures ie 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,” said a statement issued by the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’.
But it warned the World Health Organisation and Unicef to employ only “unbiased people” in a campaign “harmonised with the regional conditions, Islamic values and local cultural traditions.”
It also ordered its fighters to give polio workers “all necessary support”.
Afghanistan is one of only three countries — alongside Nigeria and Pakistan — where polio is still endemic. Last year, the country had thirty-six new cases of polio, with an estimated 160,000 to 180,000 children missing their scheduled vaccinations. In April, the Afghan government pledged to administer anti-polio and anti-measles vaccines to eight million Afghan children under the age of five this year.
And while the Taliban’s pledge to allow aid workers to complete their work is promising, it leaves questions remaining for the other two countries seeking to eradicate polio, both of which have also experienced numerous attacks on aid workers. In Nigeria, home of the most polio outbreaks in the world, the extremist group Boko Haram killed at least nine aid workers in February. Likewise, in Pakistan at least a dozen aid workers have been killed since the start of the year.