ASADABAD, Afghanistan -- Religious scholars have joined government officials in a remote eastern province to convince the insurgents to allow children in the regions they control to be vaccinated against the crippling infectious disease polio.
The ulema, or Islamic clerics, have approached the Taliban, Islamic State (IS) militants, and allied militant factions that control territory in mountainous Kunar Province to allow government medical staff to administer vaccines amid fears that the region might be on the cusp of a polio outbreak after one case was confirmed this month.
Hard-line Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan oppose polio vaccination campaigns because they view it as a conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children. Some extremists allege that such efforts are a cover for Western spies.
But Mawlawi Waliullah, a prominent Kunar cleric, says Islamic teachings do not forbid polio vaccines.
“Vaccines are halal (Arabic for allowed) in the religion,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Our prophet instructed us to protect ourselves from deadly diseases.”
Ghulamullah Wiqad, another Kunar cleric, called on the insurgents to not ban vital health care without sufficient grounding in Islamic teachings.
“It’s not a good idea to play with the lives of our children because of political goals,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The militants have no religious rulings or texts supporting their claims. They should allow vaccination because it benefits our future generations.”
Haji Muhammad Ishaq, head of the Afghan Health Ministry’s immunization program in Kunar, says they recently confirmed the first polio case in the province.
He told Radio Free Afghanistan that they recently confirmed that a 3-year-old girl in Ghaziabad district has the disease. “We sent her tests to Islamabad [in neighboring Pakistan], and unfortunately it is now confirmed that she is a victim,” he said.
He says the government’s vaccination campaign faces threats in nine of 12 Kunar districts.
“We estimate more than 10,000 children are unlikely to be vaccinated in Pech, Watapur, and Chawkay districts because Daesh militants there have banned our immunization efforts,” Ishaq said, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym.
He says that by the end of last year they were unable to vaccinate14,000 children but this number has now risen to 18,000 during the ongoing immunization drive.
Mawlawi Sayed Waliullah, another cleric in Kunar, says that despite repeated discussions the insurgents have been unable to unable to provide any proof for their anti-vaccine rhetoric.
“We have urged them to back their claims [that these vaccines violate religious teachings] with logical arguments,” he said.
Ishaq says the delegations of clerics and tribal elders have so far failed to change the militants’ views on vaccination. “So far, we have only received negative answers,” he said.
But clerics and tribal leaders in the region are adamant they will try to convince militants to allow Kunar’s residents to let their children be vaccinated.
In 2016, at least four polio cases were reported in Kunar, but no cases were discovered the following year.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Rohullah Anwari’s reporting from Asadabad, Afghanistan.