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Afghanistan Kicks Off COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Amid Rising Violence

Afghan healthcare workers unload the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines donated by the Indian government at the Kabul airport on February 7.

Afghanistan has begun its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, initially inoculating security force members, healthcare workers, and journalists as the country tries to navigate the coronavirus pandemic amid a sharp rise in violence.

The war-wracked country earlier this month received 500,000 doses of AstraZeneca's vaccine from the Serum Institute of India (SII), which is producing the vaccine for mid- and low-income countries.

TOLOnews Journalist Anisa Shaheed was the first to receive a dose, followed by a doctor and two members of the Afghan security forces.

"Today, I congratulate the people of Afghanistan for the launch of the first stage of [the] COVID-19 vaccine [drive] with 500,000 doses of vaccines. This is a big opportunity for the people of Afghanistan," Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said as the first doses were administered in a ceremony at the presidential palace.

"We don't expect any miracles, but let's help this campaign to be implemented justly," the country's acting Health Minister Waheed Majroh added.

Afghanistan is believed to have been hit hard by the pandemic over the past year, but limited testing and a weak healthcare sector have limited its ability to track the virus.

Officially the country has recorded just 55,600 confirmed cases and about 2,430 deaths, but a Health Ministry survey in August estimated that up to 10 million people -- nearly one-third of the population -- might have been infected with the coronavirus.

Kabul and other urban centers across the country have been rocked by violence in recent weeks amid fraught peace talks between the government and the Taliban.

Taliban militants fighting the foreign-backed Afghan government have announced their backing for the vaccination campaign.

Afghan health officials have said that the international COVAX program, which is aimed at improving access to the COVID-19 vaccine for developing countries, would provide vaccines to cover 20 percent of the country's 38 million population.

Ghani said efforts are under way to cover 40 percent of the population in a second round.

Decades of conflict have slowed past vaccine campaigns in Afghanistan, including an anti-polio campaign, with swaths of the country under the control of militants making access difficult for inoculation teams.

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