KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—Victory over polio felt tauntingly close in Kandahar City.
The disabling, sometimes lethal, disease hadn’t taken a new victim all year in Afghanistan’s second largest city.
To the Afghan doctors and vaccinators fighting the Canadian-funded war on polio, momentum seemed to be shifting their way.
There was talk of winning a historic fight that would benefit the whole world. If only the virus could be destroyed and join small pox to become only the second disease to be wiped from the face of the earth.
But endemic corruption, mismanagement and insecurity are sabotaging Afghanistan’s campaign against polio, a faltering struggle that Canada backed with some $60 million from 2008 to 2011.
Just weeks ago, the virus found a crack in Kandahar City’s defences. It paralyzed the young son of a truck driver, sheltered behind tall mud-brick walls in a Taliban bastion.
On Oct. 28, Habiburahman Akhter Mohammad, a 9-month-old boy in a slum where rivulets of raw sewage run down the middle of dust-blown laneways, became polio’s first new casualty this year in the provincial capital.
Afghanistan has had 34 confirmed polio cases so far in 2012, well above the number just seven years ago, before Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the disease a top aid priority in 2008.
Canada is the anti-polio campaign’s largest single donor. It bands together UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Afghan authorities and thousands of volunteers in a national offensive.
A complex ground operation hunts for the virus anywhere it could lurk, including insurgent territory. By assisting in the war on polio, the Taliban show they are reforming, says Peter Crowley, head of UNICEF in Afghanistan.
“They have realized Afghanistan has changed,” he says. “It can’t just be run on fear or repression. They need to understand and listen to the needs of the people and help respond to the needs of the people.
“The Taliban have children too. And I think any parent is going to want their child to be healthy, well and to be safe. And, increasingly, I think this is becoming less of an issue: to have a chance at education.”
In neighbouring Pakistan, UNICEF and the World Health Organization temporarily suspended the polio vaccination campaign this week after gunmen killed nine vaccinators in a series of attacks.
No one took responsibility for the murders in Pakistan, where suspicions run deep because the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency used fake hepatitis B vaccinators as spies in the hunt for former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Across Afghanistan, the foot soldiers in the war on polio are the volunteer vaccinators, some as young as 10, often barely literate children shouldering an enormous responsibility with only a day of training, even less when rules are ignored.
These volunteers must not only brave landmines, crossfire between combatants and other hazards but overcome superstition and fear or deep suspicion of outsiders to persuade parents to have their children immunized.
They must also maintain accurate records, and crucially, keep the oral vaccine at a steady temperature, chilled between 2C and 8C in the southern desert, where there is little or no electricity. Fudging records or failing to keep the vaccine constantly cool in “the cold chain” can doom the wider struggle against a relentless, highly mobile enemy.