Polio in Afghanistan

navigating the track to the finish line

Tamara Abu Sham
UNICEF/Afghanistan/2020

13 January 2020

This was my third visit to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan known as the ‘polio virus engine’. It was a hot humid day with temperature around 40 degrees.  About 10-minute drive from the city center, the car

turned into a narrow dusty road. I stepped out of the car together with female social mobilisers that accompanied me in the polio campaign monitoring trip.  We were received by a pleasant elderly woman standing in-front of a mud house with a warm smile.

She welcomed us into her home and offered us ‘Shaie Sabz’, green tea that no Afghan family will run out of it. After the traditional greetings and best wishes we explained the purpose of our visit, what is polio, why the repeated immunization, the benefits of vaccination and that vaccines were free, available and that vaccines work.  She told us ‘’in the past we didn’t know much about the importance of vaccine, now health workers, TV and radio programs discuss a lot about the danger of polio. I want my grandchildren to be all healthy, so please vaccinate all of them’’. So, we were able to vaccinate 10 children under five-years old.

In contrast, in another neighborhood, my colleagues were not so fortunate. Another woman told my co-workers ‘’Why do you come here so often? Every time you come to my home, you talk about polio. I don’t want any of your vaccines’’.  

A mixed experience in southern Afghanistan where there is poor sewage system, scattered health services and continued insurgency. The fight for polio is 25 years-old – a quarter of a century. A fight to protect children from the paralyzing disease. Over the years, many polio outreach workers and vaccinators have sacrificed their lives for children.

Four families that we had long conversations with, got their children vaccinated. What worked was the quality dialogue and time given to the families. Appreciating people’s feelings, listening to and understanding their frustrations, make them feel cared for, beyond just delivering a service. I conversed with those families about Islam and referenced powerful versus from the Holy Quran on the protection of children and seeking medication.

Also, a skilled midwife who just started her job working as the first female provincial Communication Officer in Kandahar Province, has talked to women about their own health matters. The midwife made women feel they were receiving personal care, and issues regarding their health and wellbeing were being given due attention.

I felt something is working and an aspect of it is the women’s engagement through health workers that can offer quality health education and basic care package to the community. The integration of polio vaccine promotion as part of the broader primary health care package that should respond to community needs is also being a welcomed shift.

Placing women health workers in leadership positions in the community show initial indications of more doors being open and receptive. It also means that that we are changing the way we promote polio vaccine.

As we run the last mile to end polio in Afghanistan, women’s engagement in polio eradication efforts is key to our interventions. And yes, with determination, resilience, and growing champions at the frontline, interruption of the polio virus Afghanistan is possible!

Together let’s make it happen!