Health work­ers strug­gle to vac­ci­nate chil­dren in Afghanistan

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - By Fahim Abed

Al­most 1 mil­lion chil­dren in Kan­da­har prov­ince alone need at least one dose of oral po­lio vac­cine a month to head off the dis­ease, health work­ers say. But many of them also live in the most vi­o­lent and so­cially dis­rupted parts of south­ern Afghanistan, where the Tal­iban con­trol large ar­eas and do not want gov­ern­ment health work­ers go­ing door-to- door.

These re­al­i­ties make a sus­tained vac­ci­na­tion cam­paign bru­tally dif­fi­cult for health work­ers in Afghanistan. And Afghanistan, one of three coun­tries where po­lio is still en­demic, is los­ing ground. Of­fi­cials have reg­is­tered 19 cases of po­lio this year, up from 13 each of the pre­vi­ous two years, ac­cord­ing to World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion fig­ures.

For vac­ci­na­tion crews in Kan­da­har, many things stand in their way: se­cu­rity fears and drought, deep poverty and sti­fling tra­di­tion, wide­spread il­lit­er­acy and su­per­sti­tion.

Mawlawi Ab­dul Rashid of Kan­da­har City, a re­li­gious scholar and mem­ber of one team, said most of the res­i­dents were poor and wor­ried about what their chil­dren would have to eat each night. Drought adds to the daily bur­den.

Given that, Rashid said, “They don’t care about po­lio vac­cine as much.”

Mo­ham­mad Shah, 38, said that as a vac­cine cam­paigner in the city he had been vis­it­ing more than 100 houses a day in tem­per­a­tures reach­ing 100 de­grees Fahrenheit. He said some fam­i­lies asked for food and other ne­ces­si­ties in­stead of the vac­cine.

De­spite ef­forts to have re­li­gious schol­ars ex­press sup­port for the vac­cine, Shah said mis­trust about it still ex­ists. Many worry about whether strict in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Islam al­low the vac­cine.

And fam­i­lies know the Tal­iban are sus­pi­cious of the gov­ern­ment vac­ci­na­tion drive, and worry that they will be­come tar­gets if they are seen al­low­ing the health work­ers into their homes.

Zabi­ul­lah Mu­jahid, the Tal­iban spokesman, said that the in­sur­gents were not against the vac­cine and that they sup­ported ad­min­is­ter­ing it in ar­eas un­der their con­trol.

But they will not al­low gov­ern­ment teams to go door- to- door, say­ing they be­lieve the work­ers some­times act as spies.

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