Afghanistan is trying to vaccinate millions of children against polio after a pandemic stalled its efforts to destroy the disease. But the recent killing of three vaccinated people represents the dangers the campaign faces as turmoil increases in the country.
Three women were shot down in two separate attacks on March 30 when they performed home vaccinations in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
It is the first time that vaccination agents have been killed in a decade of door-to-door vaccinations against childhood illness in Afghanistan. Such attacks have been more common in neighboring Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccinations and security personnel involved in immunization campaigns have been killed since 2011.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries in the world still endemic polio, and both have had a worrying increase in the number of cases in recent years. In Afghanistan, 56 new cases are reported in 2020, the highest number since 2011, when 80 cases were registered.
Adela Mohammadi, a 21-year-old immunization officer in Kabul, said her parents did not want her to go out for vaccinations the day after three women were killed in Jalalabad.
“I went, but with a lot of anxiety,” she told The Associated Press. “I was thinking what would happen if someone was waiting for us and suddenly started shooting at us.”
“But in the end, I love my job – I serve people, especially children,” she said. “Such attacks cannot stop us from what we are doing.”
In Pakistan, officials have struggled to overcome deep public suspicions about the vaccine, especially since the US used its campaign of fake vaccination to unearth the prime minister’s hideout. leader al-Qaida Osama bin Laden. Hard-line clergy and militants have sparked fear by describing the polio vaccination as a Western sterilization attempt to sterilize Muslim children.
In Afghanistan, some people are also suspicious of vaccinations, but that has rarely translated into violence. The new killings seem to reflect a disturbing rise in turmoil over the past year, as the country sees a growing number of intentional killings, sometimes by experts or characters. civil society, sometimes just coincidence.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for a number of violent cases. But the perpetrators of many attacks remain unknown, including the murder of immunization workers.
Violence adds to a new level of concern as Afghanistan struggles to put out a disease that has been eliminated for most of the world. In children, polio can cause partial paralysis. Since 2010, the country has implemented regular immunization campaigns, in which workers go from door to door, giving vaccines to children. Most workers are women, as they have better access to mothers and children.
Last year, authorities had to suspend four planned vaccinations because of the prevention of the coronavirus pandemic, although they did two.
Authorities say nearly 10 million children are currently in need of polio vaccine. Among them, the authorities are unable to reach about 3 million children living in areas under the control of the Taliban insurgents. One vaccination was launched earlier this year, and the second was launched on March 29 – and continued despite the murder the next day. In the second four days, more than 6 million children were vaccinated, according to Health Ministry spokesman Ghulam Dastagir Nazari.
In Afghanistan’s deeply conservative society, traumatized by decades of war, some are skeptical, seeing vaccination as a Western trick.
Mohammadi has been involved in house-to-house campaigns for the past three years. She works in the capital’s slightly better-educated places, and most of the families she accesses allow their children to take the risk. Public concerns about coronavirus and eagerness to treat have made some people more open to polio vaccination, she said.
However, she often faces angry protests sometimes from some families claiming vaccines are banned religiously or harmful to children. “There are families who don’t even open gates for us, they just scream, if we don’t leave, they will come out and beat us,” she said.
The ongoing impact of polio can be seen at the International Red Cross Commission’s Orthopedic Program in Afghanistan. It mainly provided prosthetics for many people injured in war or by roadside mines and ERW. But it also services anyone with mobility problems – including those affected by polio.
By 2020, nearly 5,000 polio patients will be treated at the program, including physiotherapy, medical equipment and orthopedic appliances.
Maiwa Gul, 35, a polio patient from the eastern province of Khost, was at the center a recent day for a prosthetic repair he needed to travel. He urged all children to be vaccinated. “Otherwise, they’ll eventually be in my position, needing someone to help them,” he said.
Merjan Rasekh, head of the public awareness division at the Health Ministry’s Polio Elimination Program, said killing the three vaccinated people was “painful”.
“If this continues, it will certainly have a negative impact on the morale of our medical staff,” he said.
But the young women who took the lead in the vaccination series say it must continue.
Shabana Maani, 22, said: “If we get scared and don’t get vaccinated, our kids and all of us will face problems.