When I graduated from college, polio was paralyzing more than 1,000 children every day. But since 1988, when the member states of the World Health Organization — with the backing of Rotary International, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF— voted to eradicate the disease, it has been wiped out in every country on earth except for Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Because of the extraordinary efforts of millions of vaccinators worldwide — most of them women — there have only been 27 cases of polio in the world this year. The battle to get to zero, however, requires determination and persistence, and women are leading the charge.
Here are some of the women on the front lines, photographed during Afghanistan’s national immunization campaign this summer. Their names have been changed for the purposes of this post.
The infant being vaccinated in this picture lives in Kabul and will soon take her first steps. There are 16 million people walking today who would have been paralyzed if they hadn’t received the polio vaccine. That’s thanks to the 20 million vaccinators who have immunized 2.5 billion children worldwide.
Zakia is one of 65,000 health workers whose job is to vaccinate every last child in even the most remote regions of Afghanistan. Despite political volatility, only eight cases of polio have been reported in the country this year — a drop of almost 40 percent from this time last year.
Zarqa is marking this girl’s finger as part of a revisit — a strategy to make sure that children who may have been missed on the first visit to a house are still vaccinated. Revisits are an important element of Afghanistan’s national emergency action plan.
These women are preparing carriers so that the medicine each vaccinator carries can stay cold. Each of these insulated boxes contains enough doses for a day’s worth of vaccination, along with cooling packs to keep the vaccines from losing potency.
Three vaccinators set out to reach children in Nangarhar Province, where not a single case of polio has been reported since last year. Throughout Afghanistan, vaccinators reached 9.5 million children over the course of this four-day campaign.
Zahra is one of the monitors overseeing a team of 25 vaccinators in very high-risk districts to make sure that every child is covered, even those in unstable or hard-to-reach areas. Findings from this monitoring help vaccinators course-correct to ensure that every child is reached.
Roya and Huma are front-line workers in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul who have been trained to find unvaccinated children. There has not been a single case of polio in Kabul this year, but progress is fragile, and there is always a risk of resurgence until the virus is completely wiped out.
These are but a few of the many women working to free Afghanistan — and the world — of polio forever. Because of their heroism, soon there will be a generation of children for whom polio is just a chapter in a history book.