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A local doctor administers the oral polio vaccination to children at the Zhari District Center outside of Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, March 8, 2012.

A local doctor administers the oral polio vaccination to children at the Zhari District Center outside of Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, March 8, 2012. (Kristina Truluck/U.S. Army)

KABUL — Following a deadly winter for aid workers dispensing polio vaccines, the Afghan Taliban announced this week they would do their best to support those workers, as long as they are not foreign.

The Taliban released a statement Monday promising not only to grant health workers with polio vaccines safe passage in their territory, but also ordering their fighters to offer help.

But, they added, workers and volunteers should be local.

“Foreign employees should refrain from going to the region,” the statement warned, “and similarly the campaign should be harmonized with the regional conditions, Islamic values and local cultural traditions.”

Along with Nigeria and Pakistan, Afghanistan is one of the last countries where polio is still endemic, according to the World Health Organization. Last month, when the government launched the second, annual round of vaccinations in its national health campaign, it also said in an official statement that two cases had already been reported this year, in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces. Last year, there were 37 polio cases nationwide.

Last year also saw the killing of a 16-year-old girl who was volunteering to fight polio in Kapisa province. Despite a 12-year military campaign by the U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces, the insurgents are present in many parts of the country.

Sona Bari, spokesperson for the World Health Organization’s polio eradication initiative, said the Taliban have been friendly toward their efforts in the past.

“The Afghan Taliban have never carried out targeted violence against polio workers,” she said.

But, Bari noted, it’s critical to distinguish between the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban.

Many more polio workers have been killed in Pakistan, including seven murdered on New Year’s Eve. In early April, a Pakistani police officer escorting anti-polio workers was shot dead.

Bari also said that every country runs its own vaccination program under the initiative, so all of the workers in Afghanistan are Muslim locals.

Despite the Taliban’s caveat about foreigners, many in Afghanistan are celebrating the insurgency’s change of heart.

“Polio doesn’t care whether it infects the child of a Taliban fighter, a mullah, a doctor or anyone else,” said Ministry of Public Health spokesman Kanishka Turkistani. “We always tried to ask all parties in Afghanistan, including the insurgents, to help us and cooperate in the polio campaigns, so this is a very good message from the Taliban.”

Dr. Mohammad Hashim Wahaj, a clinic director and public health expert in Kabul, said the Taliban aggressively combatted polio when they were in power. By the end of the regime, there were only two or three cases in Afghanistan annually. But in the early years of Karzai’s rule, the disease was low on the agenda and made a comeback.

Now, with attention from the government and cooperation from the insurgency, he hopes the end of polio in Afghanistan is near.

“Very soon we will be able to eliminate polio from Afghanistan and announce Afghanistan is polio-free,” he predicted.

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report

Standifer.cid@stripes.com


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