LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Unlike his neighbors and peers, 10-year-old Qudratullah cannot walk, run, or talk. The polio virus has turned his life and those of his family into a living hell.
Ihsansullah, his neighbor, says Qudratullah’s illness impacts the lives of his sisters and mother who must constantly take care of him. “We want the authorities to help them by treating this boy so they all can live a normal life,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Healthcare officials in Helmand say Qudratullah is not the only polio victim requiring assistance, and they are worried over the spread of the crippling virus. As most of the Helmand’s limited healthcare resources have been diverted to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, authorities recorded 11 new polio cases in the first half of the current year across six of Helmand’s 14 districts.
“We used to run vaccination campaigns before the [coronavirus] lockdown was imposed [in the spring], but everything came to a screeching halt after the lockdown,” Abdul Ahad Azim, provincial head of the Afghan Public Health Ministry, told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Azim, a physician, says the insecurity prompted by frequent clashes between the government forces and the Taliban insurgents was the main impediment to ending the polio virus in Helmand. Since 2014, the Taliban have frequently halted immunization campaigns and imposed restrictions such as forcing health workers to administer vaccines in mosques instead of door-to-door campaigns.
“The virus was already lurking here, but it found a good opportunity to spread once we were forced to stop the vaccination campaigns,” he said. “It will now be very challenging to rein in the polio outbreak here.”
Last month Jan Rasekh, a spokesman for Afghanistan's polio eradication program, warned the virus outbreak is expanding.
"We worked hard for years and cornered polio to a limited geographical area," Rasekh said. "The coronavirus has helped polio spread beyond its endemic region of south and southeast, and now threatens people across the country."
With 11 new cases, Helmand has recorded the most cases in any Afghan province out of the national total of 29 this year. This worries residents, who fear that while their country reel from the coronavirus pandemic, polio is silently transforming into a major healthcare threat.
Mohammad Gul, a resident of Helmand’s Nad-e Ali district, says authorities need to pay attention to containing both viruses. “We have not seen any vaccination in our villages for a while,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We consider this a major loss. Things need to change immediately.”
Noor Agha, a resident of Garamser district in Helmand, sees the suspension of polio vaccination campaigns as a major threat. “Suspending the vaccination campaign amounts to a major risk as our kids are being deprived of a vital vaccine [against a dangerous disease],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Abdul Haq Zwakman, an activist in Helmand, says that while local officials needs to deliver better healthcare services, security is a major roadblock to containing the polio outbreak.
“The Taliban frequently challenge polio vaccinations and sometimes even ban them altogether,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The information we now have indicates that the polio vaccination is banned in regions controlled by the Taliban.”
Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province which shares a porous border with Pakistan, has emerged as the scene of a key polio outbreak. This undermines decades of efforts to eradicate the disease from Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, where it still remains endemic. Nigeria, however, appears to have controlled the crippling disease.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by
Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, Radio Free Afghanistan’s reporter in Helmand.