ISLAMABAD - Unknown gunmen have shot dead three female anti-polio workers in Afghanistan, one of the two countries in the world along with its neighbor Pakistan, where the crippling children’s disease remains endemic.
Tuesday’s violence came on the second day of a five-day polio immunization drive, this year’s first in the conflict-torn country, that officials say aims to reach nearly one million Afghan children under five years of age in 32 out of the country’s 34 provinces.
Officials said the slain women were administering polio drops to children in parts of Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province.
No one immediately took responsibly for the violence.
Afghanistan reported 56 new cases of polio in 2020, and officials have already detected around two dozen new cases this year.
Continued fighting and a ban on door-to-door vaccinations in areas held by Taliban insurgents are blamed for hampering efforts to eradicate the polio virus in the country.
The Afghan health ministry estimates about three million children were deprived of the polio vaccine in the past three years.
Health Minister Waheed Majroj told a gathering Monday while launching the polio immunization campaign that security concerns may again deprive about one million children from receiving polio drops in 2021.
Pakistan also launched its five-day nationwide door-to-door vaccinations of children against polio on Monday amid a substantial surge in coronavirus infections.
The polio immunization drive targets more than 40 million children under the age of five across 156 Pakistani districts, said Faisal Sultan, special assistant to the Pakistani prime minister on national health services.
Sultan said the government has engaged some 285,000 frontline workers, respecting coronavirus safety guidelines, to administer polio drops to the targeted population.
Anti-polio drives have also suffered setbacks in Pakistan in recent years due to attacks on vaccinators and police personnel guarding them, leading to a spike in new infections. The violence has killed scores of polio workers and security guards escorting them.
Islamist militants see the polio vaccine as an effort to collect intelligence on their activities while radical religious groups in conservative rural parts of majority-Muslim Pakistan reject the immunization as a Western-led conspiracy to sterilize children.
Pakistani officials insist attacks on polio teams have particularly increased since 2011 when the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency arranged a fake vaccination campaign with the help of a local doctor, enabling U.S. forces to locate and kill fugitive al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden deep inside Pakistan.
Pakistan, where polio infected 84 children in 2020, has reported one confirmed case so far this year.
”The year 2021 presents a unique opportunity to leverage the gains made in 2020, despite the challenges of the (COVID-19) pandemic,” said a government statement released in connection with Monday’s launch of the immunization drive.
The South Asia nation’s second polio drive of 2021 comes amid a third wave of coronavirus infections, with Pakistani officials reporting more than 4,000 new cases and 100 deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic in the last 24 hours.
Hours after Monday’s polio vaccination drive began, authorities imposed partial lockdowns in “high-risk” Pakistani districts, including the capital, Islamabad, citing a “very dangerous” spike in new coronavirus cases.
Since the coronavirus outbreak in the country 13 months ago, the government has recorded nearly 14,400 deaths from COVID-19 and more than 663,000 infections.
Pakistani officials said the rate of people testing positive for COVID-19 had alarmingly risen to nearly 12% from a low of about 3% a few weeks ago, suggesting the actual number of infections is likely much higher than the reported cases.
Sultan said the current wave of coronavirus infections has the "potential to be worse than the first one in the summer of 2020,” when Pakistan had to impose a nationwide lockdown to contain the virus.
Pakistan President Arif Alvi tweeted Monday that he had been tested positive for COVID-19 as did the country’s defense minister, Shaukat Khattak.
Prime Minister Imran Khan had also tested positive for the virus earlier this month. Faisal tweeted Sunday that Khan had made “steady clinical recovery” and had been advised to resume building up his official work routine.