Residents in remote districts of eastern Afghanistan are reporting a rise in polio cases among children who are prevented by the Taliban from getting vaccinated.
Villagers in the mountainous eastern Kunar province, controlled by the Taliban for years, claim polio infections are increasing in their communities among children under five years old.
Mohammad Gul, a resident of the province’s Watapur district, told Radio Free Afghanistan that his three year-old daughter and 15 other children under five in their community have contracted the disease.
"We are not against vaccination. I have encouraged everyone in my village to support the campaign against polio," he said. "If my daughter is crippled, the Taliban will not come to help her. If she can’t walk, she will have a dark future and will suffer her entire life."
Many parts of Kunar and other remote Afghan provinces have been deprived of the vaccination because of attacks by militants that have killed scores of health workers administering the vaccination in the past few years.
The Taliban consider the vaccination campaign to be anti-Islamic, and have accused health workers of working for Western intelligence services.
Ismail, who like many Afghans goes by one name only, told Radio Free Afghanistan that his two year-old boy was diagnosed with the disease last spring.
He said that several other children in his village in Kunar's Dangam Narai district are also suffering from the disease, and that authorities have done little to prevent it from spreading. The nearest clinic administering the vaccination is a seven-kilometer walk away.
Ismail said that villagers were alarmed and apparently unprepared when doctors told them their children had contracted polio. "It caught everyone by surprise, many children were gravely ill."
"We hardly have access to medicine and doctors while we are caught in a calamity," he said, referring to the insurgency in the region. "Very few of [the children] have survived."
Haji Muhammad Ishaq, head of the Afghan Health Ministry in Kunar, said that many areas in his province, including Dangam Nari and Watapur, are under Taliban control, with the result that they have been effectively off-limits to polio workers for the past four years.
"Health workers have been unable to access districts such as Dangam Narai, Watapur, Pech and Chapa Dara for a long time now. So it is hardly possible for the Afghan government to collect accurate information."
Polio mainly affects children under five years old. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water and attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis.
Abdul Sabour Nariman, an official at the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, told Radio Free Afghanistan that the virus is being transmitted by families moving across the porous border from Pakistan.
He said his Ministry has confirmed three cases in the eastern Afghan provinces of Laghman, Kunar and Nangarhar this year. "The polio vaccination is being denied to hundreds of thousands of children in Pakistan's tribal areas. All the cases we see have been transmitted from Pakistan," he said.
Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the World Health Organization's Global Polio Eradication Initiative, agreed. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that there is no endemic polio problem in Afghanistan, while children in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan frontier have been deprived of the vaccination.
Kunar and Nangarhar provinces border FATA to the east.
Rosenbauer said that Afghanistan’s polio eradication efforts are directly linked to Pakistan.
"[In some areas of FATA] you have an outright ban on immunization campaigns at the moment, so that's allowing the virus to continue to circulate more and more intensely. As long as it circulates in neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan will remain at risk of re-infection," he said.