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UN plans anti-polio campaign in Afghanistan


By SJA Jafri + Bureau Report + Agencies

UNITED NATIONS/ KABUL/ ISLAMABAD: The UN has announced a nationwide polio immunization campaign in Afghanistan for the first time in many years.

Children’s agency UNICEF said they had the full support of the Taliban for the project due to begin in early November.

The Taliban will also allow female staff on the campaign and provide security to the teams, the agency said.

In the past, the militant group has opposed vaccination, falsely claiming it was a Western conspiracy to sterilize Muslims.

UNICEF said the house-to-house immunization campaign beginning on 8 November would aim to reach nearly 10 million Afghan children under the age of five.

The campaign would be the first in over three years to reach all children in Afghanistan, including more than 3.3 million children in some parts of the country who have previously remained inaccessible to vaccination campaigns, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF said in a statement.

“This decision will allow us to make a giant stride in the efforts to eradicate polio. To eliminate polio completely, every child in every household across Afghanistan must be vaccinated,” Herve Ludovic de Lys, UNICEF representative in Afghanistan, said.

The UN said it had also agreed to a second polio vaccination campaign coordinating with a similar project being planned in neighboring Pakistan.

The disease is now only found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, after Africa was declared polio-free last year.

Scores of people have been killed in recent years in militant attacks on immunization campaigns.

Polio usually affects children under five, sometimes leading to irreversible paralysis. Death can occur when breathing muscles are affected.

There is no cure, but the polio vaccine protects children for life.

Earlier, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US peace envoy to Afghanistan, has stepped down, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Monday.

US Secretary Blinken tweeted: “Thank you to Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad for decades of tireless service to the United States pleased to welcome Thomas West to the role of Special Representative for Afghanistan.”

Khalilzad’s resignation letter to US Secretary Antony Blinken was shared with TOLOnews. In the letter, Khalilzad writes:

“Today, our forces are out, the war is finally over for the United States and the very high financial costs of this engagement can now be directed to other vital needs. However, the political arrangement between the Afghan government and the Taliban did not go forward as envisaged. The reasons for this are too complex and I will share my thoughts in the coming days and weeks, after leaving government service.”

The move comes two months after a hasty evacuation by US forces from Afghanistan.

Khalilzad wrote: “I am of course saddened on behalf of the Afghan people that, despite our best efforts and extensive shuttle diplomacy on my part and that of the team as well as much urging from the international community, the Afghans failed to make use of this opportunity to end their 40-year conflict in a constructive spirit and with a fair compromise.”

Meanwhile, a number of Kabul residents have complained about the rise in prices of goods in Kabul’s markets as the value of the Afghani has fallen against the dollar in recent days.

The dropping in value of Afghanis against the dollar has greatly reduced business in the markets.

According to the money exchangers, recently the smuggling of dollars has also caused problems in the markets.

Currently, one dollar is exchanged for about 90 Afghanis in the Kabul market.

Kabul residents urged Afghanistan’s central bank to take steps to control the currency markets and to pave the way for more robust business.

“It’s problematic when the value of the dollar raises in the currency markets, then the price of the goods increases too,” said Esmatullah, a resident.

In the meantime, several money exchangers in Kabul believed that lack of cash in banks is the reason that the Afghan currency dropped.

“In the currency markets, the shortage of dollars is the reason behind Afghanis dropping dramatically,” said Mirwais, a money exchanger.

At the same time, Afghanistan annually imports goods which cost 8.5 billion dollars and to buy these goods they use dollars.

“Afghanistan is one of those countries that rely on other countries’ imports and we need dollars to buy goods and that is why the Afghani is losing its value in currency markets,” said Haji Zirak Zirak, the spokesperson of the money exchangers union in Kabul.

At last, the health workers in Afghanistan will begin a house-to-house polio vaccination drive next month after the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund said.

“WHO and UNICEF welcome the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccination across Afghanistan,” they said in a statement on Monday.

Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and highly infectious disease transmitted through sewage that can cause crippling paralysis in young children.

Polio has been virtually eliminated globally through a decades-long inoculation drive. But insecurity, inaccessible terrain, mass displacement and suspicion of outside interference have hampered mass vaccination in Afghanistan and some areas of Pakistan.

The UN agencies noted that only one case of wild poliovirus had been reported in Afghanistan since the start of the year, providing “an extraordinary opportunity to eradicate polio”.

“Restarting polio vaccination now is crucial for preventing any significant resurgence of polio within the country and mitigating the risk of cross-border and international transmission,” they said.

First in more than three years

The campaign, due to start on November 8, will be the first in more than three years aimed at all children in Afghanistan, including more than 3 million in remote and previously inaccessible areas.

“This decision will allow us to make a giant stride in the efforts to eradicate polio,” Hervé Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, said in a statement.

“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.

A second campaign, due to begin in coordination with a campaign in Pakistan in December, has also been agreed to.

According to figures compiled before the collapse of the Western-backed government in August, there was one reported case of the wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1) in Afghanistan in 2021, compared with 56 in 2020.

However, until the disease is eliminated entirely, it remains a threat to human health in all countries, especially those with vulnerable health systems, because of the risk of importing the disease.

Since the Taliban swept back into power two months ago, the UN had been talking with the group’s leadership to address the towering health challenges in the country, the statement said.

“The Taliban leadership has expressed their commitment for the inclusion of female frontline workers,” it said.

Afghanistan’s new rulers had also committed to “providing security and assuring the safety of all health workers across the country, which is an essential prerequisite for the implementation of polio vaccination campaigns,” the agencies said.

That marks a dramatic about-face from the group’s position during their years of fighting against the Western-backed government.

Due mainly to Taliban opposition to door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which they suspected were being used to spy on their activities, no campaigns with countrywide reach have been carried out in more than three years.

Taliban leaders often told communities in areas they controlled that vaccines were a Western conspiracy aimed at sterilizing Muslim children.

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