A child receives the polio vaccine A child receives the polio vaccine  (AFP or licensors)

UN outraged at killing of polio vaccine workers in Afghanistan

The killings have set back WHO’s polio vaccine campaign in the country, which was resumed in November.

By Robin Gomes

The United Nations has condemned the killing of eight polio vaccination workers in four locations in northern Afghanistan on Thursday, saying it has set back efforts to eradicate the disease in the troubled nation.  

One member of the vaccination transit team was killed in Taloqan district in Takhar province, while four members of house-to-house teams were murdered in two separate incidents in Kunduz city, according to a statement from the UN country team. Two vaccinators and a social mobilizer were killed in the Emamsaheb district of Kunduz province. The Ministry of Public Health said the victims included four women.

The UN country team in Afghanistan said the killings have set back the polio vaccination campaign that the World Health Organization (WHO) had resumed across the nation in November, in an effort to reach millions of children, with the help of the Taliban who took control of the country in August.

In the wake of the carnage, the UN immediately suspended the national polio vaccination campaign in Kunduz and Takhar provinces.

Violation of humanitarian law

“We are appalled by the brutality of these killings, across four separate locations,” the UN said. Last year, nine polio vaccine workers were killed during national polio vaccination campaigns. Condemning the attacks as a violation of international humanitarian law, the UN said, “This senseless violence must stop immediately, and those responsible must be investigated and brought to justice.”

The head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyeus, also expressed his profound shock and extended his condolences to the families and colleagues of the dead.

The public health ministry statement said authorities were investigating the killings.

Depriving children  healthy life

“The polio immunization campaigns,” the UN said, “are a vital and effective way to reach millions of children to protect them against polio.” It added, “Depriving children of an assurance of a healthy life is inhumane.”

Polio is an acute, viral infectious disease that spreads from person to person, primarily via the faecal-oral route. The polio virus, which usually infects children, attacks the central nervous system, sometimes causing irreversible paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation, and, in some cases, death. The incurable disease often spreads in areas with poor sanitation, but it can be prevented with comprehensive, population-wide vaccination.

“The United Nations strongly condemns all attacks on health workers anywhere,” the UN statement said. “The delivery of health care is impartial and any attack against health workers and those who work to defend them is an attack on the children, whose very lives they are trying to protect.” 

Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said the suspension of the programme in Kunduz and Takhar provinces leaves thousands of children unprotected and exposed to a life-threatening disease that can result in permanent paralysis.

In calling for an end to “senseless attacks” on health workers, Dr Al-Mandhari pointed out that they are strictly forbidden in all faiths. “These cowardly acts,” he said, “ultimately only harm innocent children who must be given every opportunity to live safe and healthy lives.”

Polio drive in Afghanistan

The polio vaccination campaign in Afghanistan is supported by WHO, together with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other partners. They planned to target nearly 10 million under-fives across the country this month, with four more rounds scheduled for the rest of the year.

The polio programme has made extensive progress in controlling the transmission of wild poliovirus in Afghanistan, contributing to the global eradication of the disease. In 2021, Afghanistan reported 4 cases of wild poliovirus, and only one case has been reported to date in 2022.

This month’s campaign planned to focus on nearly 10 million children aged 0–59 months across the country. In addition to this round, four more campaigns are planned for 2022. The polio programme requires everyone’s support to ensure they are implemented without any risk to health workers, or the people they serve.

“WHO, together with national and international partners, remains committed to our polio eradication efforts in Afghanistan,” the UN statement said.

Global anti-polio drive

In 1988, the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the worldwide eradication of polio, marking the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, spearheaded by national governments, the WHO, and its partners. Since then, "wild" poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99 per cent from an estimated 350,000 cases in more than 125 endemic countries to 175 reported cases in 2019.

Of the 3 strains of wild poliovirus (type 1, type 2 and type 3), wild poliovirus type 2 was eradicated in 1999 and no case of wild poliovirus type 3 has been found since the last reported case in Nigeria in November 2012. Both strains have officially been certified as globally eradicated. As of 2020, wild poliovirus type 1 affects two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

However, the disheartening news of a new case of wild polio in Malawi has raised the spectre of a possibility that the virus that had been driven out of the African continent five years ago could resurface. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a 3-year-old child in Malawi's capital Lilongwe developed paralysis in November 2021 and it has now been confirmed that it was polio.

25 February 2022, 15:41