Afghanistan launches polio drive in former ISIL areas

The latest five-day drive will look to reach about 9.5 million children nationwide, with officials hoping to take advantage of reduced fighting in the east following successes from US-backed military operations.

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Kabul // Afghanistan launched a polio vaccination campaign on Monday aimed at reaching children in areas previously controlled by ISIL militants, officials said.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the only two countries in the world where polio remains endemic – a fact blamed on opposition to immunisation by radicalised groups, who claim the vaccines are a conspiracy to sterilise Muslims or a cover for spying.

The latest five-day drive will look to reach about 9.5 million children nationwide, the health ministry’s Sardar Parwiz said, with officials hoping to take advantage of reduced fighting in the east following successes from US-backed military operations.

“We have already started contacting locals in areas retaken from Daesh. We will send our teams to those areas, but if they face any problems, we will ask locals to transport their children to our clinics in safer areas,” he said.

Fighters pledging allegiance to ISIL had been in control of several districts in eastern Nangarhar province on the border with Pakistan, before they were pushed out by Afghan and Nato forces.

Last month, Afghan troops backed by US air strikes seized large parts of the mountainous district of Kot in Nangarhar, a key ISIL stronghold where the extremists set up Sharia courts and training camps displaying their trademark black flag.

Najibullah Kamawal, the head of the health department in Nangarhar said some districts had been unreachable for over a year, leaving thousands of children without medical assistance.

“It is a challenge, it is risky, but we are determined to go to every village and vaccinate the kids,” he said.

Noorul Habib a teacher in Kot district said by phone the elders and local population were determined to support the campaign.

“We know polio is dangerous, we will do our best to support this campaign. All the elders have sent messages to militants not to disrupt the campaign. We have also told them not to destroy mosques, clinics and schools,” he said.

Afghanistan registered eight polio cases, mostly in the eastern part of the country in the first half of the year, according to ministry of health. Most of them are believed to have been imported from Pakistan.

* Agence France-Presse