Polio Headlines 13 October, 2021

How does Taliban control of Afghanistan affect Rotary's final push to end polio? What is Rotary's response and where do we go from here? Read on...
A quick view of the "box scores" above, would lead one to believe that polio is done, over, eradicated. It only shows 2 cases in January of 2021, one in Pakistan, one in Afghanistan. But we must look deeper into these numbers. Both cases occurred in a small region between the Afghan-Pakistan border controlled by the Taliban. In this area the Taliban resisted all efforts to immunize children for purely political reasons and a number of polio workers, mostly women, died trying to save the children. Late in 2020 the Taliban aggression stopped for reasons beyond this report and immunization resumed, again, by a very brave group of Afghan women. The result is that polio has been virtually stopped. It remains to be seen how the Taliban government of Afghanistan continues to care for its children.
The following report was published on Facebook, 8/25/21 by Michael McGovern, RI Polio Committee Chair. It covers a subject which is now running totally under the radar about worldwide disease eradication and the involvement of the Taliban.
As the sun rose on 1 January 2021, we all worried about what this new year would bring.  For those of us who closely follow polio eradication progress, it was an especially worrisome time.  2020 and 2019 had seen an uptick in wild polio virus cases and in circulating vaccine derived cases.  Polio vaccinations had had to be suspended for a while in 2020 due to the coronavirus and vaccines for Covid-19 were just starting to receive early use approvals.
The polio news was especially bad in Afghanistan.  On the very first day of 2021, a wild polio virus case was reported.  In the next week, the national health minister was fired due to hints of corruption on non-polio matters.    Before month’s end, the government of Afghanistan ordered the UNICEF polio lead to leave the country relating to a verbal spat that had occurred in the President’s office.  Then in March and June there were coordinated attacks on polio workers and their security teams leaving eight families having lost loved ones.  The Taliban denied responsibility for the attacks, and it appeared the attacks were tied to elements who supported ISIS or ISIL as they are also known.   We also noted that some areas of the country had been subject to over 30 months of a ban on house-to-house polio vaccinations.
 While all this was going on other activities were occurring which have been mostly unreported. On January 17th, the Regional Directors of WHO and UNICEF met at the Taliban office in Doha, Qatar to discuss polio vaccinations and covid response in the areas controlled by the Taliban. While house to house polio vaccinations were not agreed to, the seven senior members of Taliban leadership indicated support for other measures to provide vaccination activities.  In all areas of the country, health screenings continued unabated which showed no new wild polio cases and no positive identification of polio viruses in the environment. In a zoom call of polio partnership leaders the week of 17 August, Aidan O’Leary, the global WHO polio director, noted that Afghanistan has one of the best programs for polio surveillance in the world and it was not finding polio anywhere.
After the fall of the Afghanistan government in mid-August, the new leadership has agreed to keep on the acting health minister who has been effective in righting the program since February.  Taliban leaders have visited the national and regional polio offices and pledged their support for the polio eradication program.   On 23 August, a Rotary sponsored roadside vaccination hut provided vaccinations to children under five with local Taliban providing the needed security. For security reasons, I will not share the photos I received but it was good to see the Rotary logo doing good in the world.
Rotary has just 35 members in Afghanistan.  They inspire me daily with their courage and perseverance.  The polio program has always been politically neutral in every country. Rotary and our partners work with the leaders who are in charge. We now work with new leaders in Afghanistan.  Rotary funds WHO and UNICEF.  We do not send any funds to the governments nor to groups other than WHO and UNICEF.   We monitor the spending they do on our behalf very closely.   We have never been closer to eradicating polio in Afghanistan. We will continue to work with the Afghani people and our partners to finish what we began over 35 years ago.