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New Polio Case Reported In Restive Afghan Province

FILE: A polio vaccination campaign in Helmand in late September.
FILE: A polio vaccination campaign in Helmand in late September.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Health officials in a volatile Afghan province have a reported a new polio case as a majority of children under the age of 5 continue to be denied vaccination against the crippling infectious disease in the region.

Esmatullah Himat, who heads the immunization program in Helmand, says they discovered the latest case in the rural district of Nawzad.

He identified the young victim by his first name only, saying Farid most likely caught the virus because the immunization campaign was unable to reach his village amid insecurity and a militant ban.

“The virus emerges whenever we fail to carry out a proper immunization drive,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on October 16. “The last immunization campaign earlier this year was patchy, and after that we were unable to deliver any vaccines for seven months.”

Himat says this is the second polio case they have recorded in Helmand this year. He says the neighboring province of Kandahar has emerged as a major flashpoint for the spread of the polio virus after authorities discovered eight new cases there out of a total of 15 countrywide.

“This virus can be transmitted through the air and people’s movements, so if we are unable to conduct blanket immunization, we are unfortunately likely to see more such cases,” he noted.

Health workers can currently administer polio vaccination in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and the nearby districts of Nad-e Ali, Nawa, and Greshk. Since May, the Taliban militants have prevented health workers from carrying out immunizations in the remaining 10 districts. Of Helmand’s estimated 800,000 children, only 200,000 are immunized against the disease.

Syed Kamal Shah, a UNICEF spokesman in Afghanistan, says that without a quick agreement between health authorities and the Taliban over extending the immunization drive to regions controlled by the insurgents, the children living there are vulnerable to the virus.

“This is very alarming. Without an immunization campaign, the immunity of children against polio decreases, which helps a quick spread of the disease,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Health workers in Helmand, however, are holding out hope that they will manage to convince the insurgents to let them conduct a door-to-door campaign. The Taliban are currently insisting immunization only take place at mosques.

Aminullah Abid, director of the Public Health Ministry in Helmand, says the practice prevents many children from accessing vaccinations. “Most men are not home during the day because they are busy earning a livelihood for their families. Women are expected to remain confined to their homes, in line with local norms, which prevents them from bringing young children to the mosque,” he noted.

Afghan health authorities estimate that currently more than 1.3 million children among its estimated 30 million population are unable to access polio vaccination.

Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last two countries where polio is still endemic. Hard-line Islamist militants have opposed polio vaccination campaigns in the two countries, claiming they provide cover for Western spies. In a more outlandish claim, some radical clerics paint it as a conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand.