JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN - Polio vaccinations for tens of thousands of Afghan children are being delayed because health workers are unable to access remote regions controlled by Islamic militants including the Islamic State group.
Gula Khan Ayub, a Ministry of Public Health official, said around 100,000 children could not get vaccinated in a recent four-day polio vaccination campaign carried out in 14 eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan due to militants' threats.
The militants are blocking polio vaccination campaigns, saying the Afghan government and the West are using health workers for intelligence-gathering purposes, VOA correspondent Zabihullah Ghazi reports.
Militants also are reportedly giving mostly uneducated locals misinformation about the polio efforts, saying the vaccine causes long-term fertility problems for both boys and girls, and it contains pork products, which are unlawful in Islamic jurisprudence.
According to the World Health Organization, polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, the only places in the world where the wild virus continues to circulate.
The delay in vaccination efforts not only puts children at risk, but there are fears the disease will spread. Polio is spread through person-to-person contact, and one carrier can infect hundreds.
The poliomyelitis virus hits the nervous system and may result in irreversible paralysis. Young children in poor rural areas with inadequate sanitation are most vulnerable.
Polio cases up
In Afghanistan's Nangarhar province, where fighting in recent months among Taliban, IS and government forces has been fierce, health workers are hamstrung. Local IS fighters have told health workers they have orders from their leaders not to allow polio vaccinations.
"Forty thousand of our children will be left without vaccination," Najibullah Kamawal, the director of public health department in Nangarhar, told VOA. "Our campaign does not take place in areas affected where fighting goes on."
At least 16 polio cases have been registered by the Ministry of Public Health in Afghanistan. Nangarhar has the highest number of reported polio cases in the country, with four in the Achin district where IS militants have a stronghold.
"We have not had vaccinations in our areas in the past or now," said Zabihullah Shinwari, a local resident. "Relevant security departments should pay attention to this issue so that the security situation gets better and children get vaccinated."
Nangarhar's provincial council has expressed concerns about the increasing number of polio cases. The council says they could cause a major health crisis if the security impediments are not properly addressed.
"Fighting has continued in these areas and children have not been vaccinated during the last few years," said Zabiullah Zmaray, a member of Nangarhar provincial council. "If the security situation does not get better, vaccination teams cannot go there and polio cases will increase."
Persuading the militants
Provincial authorities are seeking to resolve the issue through mediation initiated by local leaders who are trying to talk to IS militants.
"We are trying to resolve this issue by reaching an understanding [to convince the militants] through tribal elders," Nangarhar Governor Salim Khan Kunduzi said.
IS militants, however, do not seem ready to accept any mediation, according to reports VOA received from the province.
Many Afghan refugee children have returned from neighboring Pakistan, where more than 250 polio cases were reported last year.
The polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan has faced increasing attacks since a Pakistani doctor, Shakeel Afridi, allegedly helped the U.S. track al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden by running a fake polio campaign in Abbottabad where the al-Qaida chief was shot dead.
In areas dominated by the Taliban in Haska Mena, health officials were pleased in September that tribal elders and religious leaders were able to convince the Taliban to lift a nine-month ban on polio vaccination teams.
"This is very beneficial to our children," Ahmad, a resident of Haska Mena, said at the time. "We are very pleased that this program [polio vaccination] is [re]starting and our children will be saved from this crippling disease."
But that hope was short-lived. Now IS controls that area and the group is not allowing vaccinations anymore.