In an unprecedented move Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have endorsed a three-day polio immunization drive in areas under their influence in Afghanistan, according to aid agencies.
The insurgents issued a “letter of support” through the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) before the immunization campaign started on 13 September, an official working for an international aid agency told IRIN.
As part of its humanitarian mandate, the ICRC acts as a neutral intermediary and maintains contacts with all warring parties.
In order to minimize the impact of insecurity, increase access and improve the safety of vaccination staff in conflict-affected districts, some negotiations with “anti-government elements” have reportedly taken place, and before the planned immunization campaign the Taliban released a “letter of support” through ICRC.
The insurgents have rarely negotiated with independent aid agencies and are widely accused of deliberate attacks on health facilities, aid workers and other civilian actors. The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) has said on previous occasions that it could not reach and vaccinate tens of thousands of children mostly in the southern provinces because of insecurity and threats by the insurgents.
Over one million under-five children in southern, southeastern, western and eastern parts of the country are being targeted in the current immunization drive, which will involve over 15,000 vaccinators and health workers, according to UNICEF.
About 660,000 children are being targeted in 13 high-risk and difficult-to-reach-districts in the provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and Uruzgan.
No security incidents so far
MoPH spokesman Ahmad Farid Raaid told IRIN no security incidents involving polio vaccinators had been reported on the first day of the campaign.
Health officials in the volatile provinces of Kandahar and Helmand told IRIN the vaccinators were doing their job in the targeted districts without any major security problems.
However, Enyatullah Ghafari, director of Helmand’s health department, said health workers were still concerned about their safety. “Some local Taliban fighters may be unaware about the `letter of support’ issued by their leadership and may cause problems.”
The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the three-day polio eradication drive had been initiated to mark 21 September, International Peace Day.
UNAMA has called on the warring sides to allow essential humanitarian work to take place around the country around this date.
So far this year 20 polio cases have been confirmed (31 were reported in 2008), and the virus is considered to be endemic in Afghanistan - as well as Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to the UN World Health Organization.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions