Rotarians meet Taliban supporter of Afghan polio immunization drive
From left, Fary Moini, Past District Governor Stephen Brown, National PolioPlus Committee Chair Dr. Ajmal Pardis, Imam Abdul Wakil, former Rotary Scholar Mohib ullah Israr, and Dr. Qahar Ludien gather after the meeting of Islamic leaders promoting Afghanistan’s NIDs. Photo courtesy of Stephen Brown
On the eve of Afghanistan's 19-21 October National Immunization Days, Stephen Brown, past governor of District 5340 (California, USA), had an extraordinary opportunity to witness the country’s drive to end polio in action.
Brown and Fary Moini, a fellow member of the Rotary Club of La Jolla Golden Triangle, were in Afghanistan to help develop Rotary humanitarian and educational projects. They were invited by Dr. Ajmal Pardis, chair of the country’s National PolioPlus Committee and a member of the Rotary Club of Jalalabad, to attend a 15 October meeting of Islamic leaders, or mullahs, in Jalalabad.
The meeting emphasized the importance of the polio eradication initiative and linked immunization against the disease to the duties of parents to protect their children, as explained in the Quran.
"The most interesting speech, to us, was from a powerful Taliban mullah, Imam Abdul Wakil, who talked very passionately about the importance of this effort," Brown reported in his online journal. "He was clearly very well spoken, and everyone was on the edge of their seats listening to him. There were about 40 mullahs present, about 30 elders, about 10 students from the Taliban madras [Islamic] school, and local and national media."
On 18 October, Brown and Moini attended a kickoff event for the NIDs, attended by Nangarhar provincial officials, immunization supervisors, and the media. Brown gave a short speech and administered oral polio vaccine to a child.
Pardis also invited Brown to a 20 October briefing on the status of polio eradication in Afghanistan. The briefing, which included two medical officers from the World Health Organization, covered the NIDs underway, aimed at reaching 7.5 million children under age five.
"Approximately 50,000 workers [public health staff and volunteers] are involved. It is a massive undertaking," Brown reported.
According to WHO, a major focus of the country’s polio eradication effort is the security-compromised southern region.
"There is no evidence of poliovirus transmission in all areas in Afghanistan that have been safely accessed by polio vaccinators," said Dr. Tahir Mir, a WHO medical officer for the polio eradication initiative, at a September press conference in Kabul. "Only areas that are inaccessible to our teams have reported polio cases."
In addition to participating in NIDs, Brown and Moini have led several Rotary efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, including helping to establish and equip schools and to coordinate Rotary Foundation scholarships and Group Study Exchange teams.
During their October visit, they briefed USAID staff in Afghanistan "about efforts of Rotary that tend not to show up on our government's radar," Brown reported. "I think those attending were surprised at how much we have been able to accomplish primarily through a volunteer network."