New Efforts To Eradicate Polio In Remote Areas Of Afghanistan Engage Religious Leaders

As one of the last countries ravaged by naturally occurring outbreaks of the debilitating Polio virus, the Afghan government is taking advanced steps in order to eliminate the disease once and for all. The Guardian has reported that the government is enlisting Clerics and Islamic scholars to communicate with communities dominated by the Taliban, as well as groups affiliated with the remnants of the ISIS movement. These groups are skeptical of vaccination movements, seeing them as western interference by stealth; the Afghan government hopes to combat these perceptions through this new strategy.

Polio is an atrociously debilitating disease, often affecting children in remote and poverty-stricken areas and leaving them disabled. As a result, Afghan religious leaders have taken a particularly notable role in the fight against polio; one such leader in particular, Mawlawi Abdul Khaliq, claimed the mantle saying, “[Islamic scholars] are fully responsible for the next generation living in a polio-free environment.” However, being a vaccinator is not without risks, particularly in an area dominated by extremist groups such as the Taliban; health worker Gul Maki says that “due to the worsening security, the vaccinators are unable to go [to remote borderland districts].” The momentum towards finally eliminating a disease that has haunted public health professionals for years is matched with factors inherently bound to a complex, conflict-riven region.

This new path pursued by the Afghan government could potentially be a valuable stepping-stone between the unstoppable force and the immoveable object. Afghanistan is deeply culturally Islamic; as a result, the words of an imam holds far more weight than those of an outsider. If the international community continues to look at the strengths of a community, instead of attempting to fill gaps that simply do not exist in a society, they may find their pursuit of solutions to complex and conflictive situations far more fruitful and effective. Furthermore, outreach and empowerment of these clerics could have positive and strengthening impacts on the Afghan state as well.

It is notable that two of the last three countries where polio occurs naturally, Afghanistan and Pakistan, border each other, (the third being Nigeria). The remote border areas that connect Afghanistan to Pakistan is remote and mountainous, and dominated by extremist groups, far from the reach of Baghdad and Islamabad. The persistence of naturally occurring outbreaks of Polio in these areas is indicative of the fragility of the Afghan and Pakistani states; if these states can be bolstered and reinforced in an empowering way, which does not include condescension from the international community, these public health outcomes could be far more achievable. Similarly, a strength-based approach that consolidates these fragile states would have a number of positive flow-on effects; for example, strengthening education provision and support for educators through a considered assistance to religious leaders would undermine the seductive hold of extremists in these regions. Representatives of the international community have to be seen as holding something other than a gun, and must cooperate with local communities and empower them, rather than dictate and proscribe what is best. Only then will these areas be able to be holistically stabilized, allowing their inhabitants a peaceful and prosperous life into the future.

The Afghan government should be commended for their new approach to eliminating the Polio virus once and for all. Vaccination efforts were severely hampered by the perception that they were fronts for American intelligence operations in the aftermath of the operation to locate Osama Bin Laden. By recognizing the authority of religious leaders and empowering them, a chance exists that this indiscriminate risk to international peace can finally be stopped in its tracks.

Patrick Cain