KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Afghanistan is trying to vaccinate millions of children against polio after epidemic blockers halted efforts to eradicate the catastrophic disease. But the recent killing of three vaccines points to propaganda threats as the country grows in turmoil.
Three women were killed by gunfire during two separate attacks on March 30 while carrying out door-to-door vaccinations in the eastern city of Ala Alabad.
For the first time in a decade, door-to-door vaccinations against childhood diseases have killed vaccine workers in Afghanistan. Such attacks have been more frequent in neighboring Pakistan, where at least 70 vaccine-related security personnel have been killed since 2011.
Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries in the world where polio is still endemic, and both have seen alarming increases in recent years. In Afghanistan, 56 new cases were registered in 2020, which is the highest number since 2011, when 80 cases were registered.
Adela Mohammadi, a 21-year-old vaccine worker in Kabul, says her parents do not want her to go out for vaccinations the day after the killing of three women in Alalabad.
“I left, but with great anxiety,” he told the Associated Press. “I was thinking that someone was waiting for us, suddenly he started shooting at us.”
“But at the end of the day I like my job. “I serve my people, especially the children,” he said. “Such attacks cannot hinder us in everything we do.”
Officials in Pakistan have struggled to overcome deep public suspicion of the vaccine, especially after the United States used a fake vaccine campaign to uncover the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. The hardliners and militants have raised fears that the polio vaccine is a conspiracy to sterilize Muslim children.
Some in Afghanistan have also been skeptical of vaccines, but this rarely turns into violence. The new killings seem to reflect the alarming rise of last year’s chaos, with an increase in targeted killings in the country, sometimes by professionals or civil society figures, sometimes simply by chance.
The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for some of the violence. But the perpetrators of many of the attacks remain unknown, including the killings of vaccine workers.
Violence raises new concerns as Afghanistan struggles to eradicate a disease that has largely disappeared around the world. Polio can cause partial paralysis in children. The country has been conducting regular vaccination campaigns since 2010, during which workers went door-to-door giving the vaccine to children. Most of the employees are women, as they can have better access to mothers and children.
Last year, authorities had to withdraw four rounds of planned vaccinations due to blockades against the coronavirus, although they managed to hold two rounds.
Authorities say about 10 million children now need to be vaccinated against polio. Authorities have been unable to reach some 3 million children living in areas controlled by Taliban insurgents. One round of vaccinations was carried out earlier this year, and the second was launched on March 29 and continued despite the killings the next day. During the second four-day phase, more than 6 million children were vaccinated, according to Health Ministry spokesman Hu Ustad Dastagir Nazari.
Some in Afghanistan’s deeply conservative war-torn society are skeptical of some, seeing vaccinations as a Western ploy.
For the past three years, Mohammadi has been involved in door-to-door campaigns. She works in some of the better educated parts of the capital, and most of the families she approaches allow their children to be given a dose. “Coronavirus-related societal concerns և the desire for treatment have made polio vaccines more open,” he said.
Still, he regularly encounters the sometimes angry resistance of some families who claim that vaccines are banned by religion or harm children. “There are families who do not even open their gates in front of us, they just shout. “If we do not leave, they will come out and beat us,” he said.
The ongoing impact of polio can be seen in the International Red Cross orthopedic program in Afghanistan. It mainly provides artificial legs for many wounded in war or roadside bombs or mines. But it also offers services to anyone with mobility problems, including people with polio.
In 2020, the program received treatment for nearly 5,000 polio patients, including physiotherapy, medical equipment, and orthopedic devices.
Maiva Gul, 35, from Khost Arielyan, a polio patient, has been in the center for the past few days with orthopedic foot repairs that require walking. He urged that all children be vaccinated. “Otherwise, they will eventually be in my position, they will need someone to help them,” he said.
Merjan Rasek, head of public awareness at the Ministry of Health’s polio eradication program, said the killing of the three vaccines was “painful”.
“If this situation continues, it will definitely have a negative impact on the morale of our healthcare workers,” he said.
But the leading young women in vaccines said it should continue.
“If we are afraid we will not get vaccinated, our children will all have problems,” said Shabana Maani, 22.