LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Health officials in a restive Afghan province say three-quarters of children under the age of 5 are being denied a vaccination against the crippling infectious disease polio.
Aminullah Abid, director of the Afghan Public Health Ministry in the southern province of Helmand, expects to only reach some 200,000 of the region’s estimated 800,000 children as he unveiled a five-day vaccination campaign on July 2.
Abid says authorities are trying to convince the Taliban to allow a door-to-door vaccination campaign in Helmand, where they control most of the rural region.
“We expect both sides to help us during our campaign,” he told journalists. “They should either engage in a ceasefire or protect and help our campaigners.”
As the campaign began, Afghan health authorities confirmed a new case of poliomyelitis in Helmand.
"A new polio virus case was recently registered in Pir Mohammad village, Nad Ali district of southern Helmand Province," the Health Ministry said in a statement on July 2. So far this year, authorities in Afghanistan have confirmed nine new polio cases.
Asmatullah Hakimi, a doctor in charge of the immunization campaign in Helmand, says insecurity prevented their scheduled vaccination campaign in March, which likely contributed to the emergence of Helmand’s first polio case in 15 months.
“The affected child might have taken the vaccine in the past, but the campaign there is difficult to monitor,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
The Health Ministry, however, said that the paralyzed 4-year-old boy was never vaccinated and lived in a region beyond the reach of polio vaccinators. The current immunization campaign targets 27 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Kabul estimates that more than 1.3 million children of its estimated 30 million population are unable to access the vaccination.
Ferozuddin Feroz, the Afghan public health minister, says the campaign is aiming to vaccinate children during the high transmission season, when they are most susceptible to the virus.
“Our primary reports show that in this round of the campaign, around 1,347,000 children could be deprived of the polio vaccine in Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar, Nangarhar, Kunar, and Kunduz provinces, where anti-government elements do not support the campaign,” he said.
In Helmand, public health director Abid says that in addition to insecurity and the ongoing insurgency, cultural practices and unspoken bans prevent them from reaching some children.
He says one of their major headaches is a restriction across rural Helmand that children can only be vaccinated at their local mosque. 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. “In our culture, newborns are also kept at home for the first 40 days.”
Abid says a door-to-door campaign would prove a huge boost to their efforts to eradicate polio and prevent children from contracting other deadly diseases.
In regions like Helmand, bans, insecurity, paranoia, and a lack of healthcare services complicate the global efforts to eradicate the crippling disease.
For the past two decades, hard-line Islamist militants have opposed polio vaccination campaigns in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The militants often claim that the campaigns provide a cover for Western spies. More outlandish claims view polio vaccination as a conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children.
Polio remains endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Islamabad has reported three cases this year. Nigeria, however, has not reported any new cases of the crippling and potentially deadly disease since August 2016.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Mohammad Ilyas Dayee's reporting from Lashkar Gah, Helmand. With reporting by the VOA.