Islamic clerics have agreed to work with the Afghan government to persuade militant groups in the country that vaccination programmes should be allowed in remote areas.
Imans are to consult with the Taliban, Islamic State and other factions in the mountainous Kunar province in a bid to get efforts to eradicate polio back on track, after six new cases were reported in this year.
Hard-line Islamist militants and clerics in the three countries where the disease still exists, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, have been opposing polio vaccination campaigns, as myths have become ingrained that they are part of a or a . There have been several attacks and killings of nurses and volunteers.
The began a national immunisation campaign earlier this month, with around 70,000 workers knocking on doors and stopping families in health centres, streets and at border crossings. Almost 10 million children were vaccinated but a significant population lives in like Kunduz where Taliban insurgents last year banned inoculations.
The vaccination programme was badly discredited, after a fake campaign was used as cover in the in Pakistan.
Cleric Mawlawi Mohammad Ajmal, from Kunar, told the Guardian: “Islam won’t deny the treatment and prevention of sickness and disease, if our aim is to have a normal and healthy society then we need to allow and support health field workers and polio vaccinators to reach every child under five in each and every household, village and district.”
Mawlawi Abdul Khaliq, another religious leader from Kunar province, said: “Giving three drops of vaccine to every child under five is the guarantee for the polio-free life and polio-free generation, so we must support the vaccination campaign across the country and discuss this issue with the people who are in remote and mountainous regions.
“We are fully responsible for the next generation living in a polio-free environment,” he said. “The role of Islamic scholars is important.”
Nevertheless, cultural issues were still obstructing the vaccination campaign, said Gul Maki, a health worker in Kunar. “Cultural difficulties remain a crucial hurdle against female [health] workers. However, this doesn’t just affect the vaccination campaigns but every aspect of of daily life.”
He added: “The and Isis presence is huge and they are controlling most of the districts. Due to the worsening security, the vaccinators are unable to go there.”
Muhammad Ishaq, from the Afghan health ministry, confirmed that a three-year-old girl in Kunar had been diagnosed with polio. “The health ministry sent her tests to a laboratory in Islamabad and it has been confirmed that she is the latest victim of the crippling disease.”
Kunar’s public health director Aziz ur Rehman Safi said: “Due to the Isis ban on the vaccination drive ... there is a fear that an estimated 12,000 children are unlikely to be vaccinated in the latest campaign.”
Clerics said they believe that by the end of 2017 polio vaccination teams had been unable to immunise more than 14,000 children in the province, and there were fears that this figure would continue to rise.
For health workers, administering the polio vaccinations continued to be dangerous work, said David Lai, World Health Organization Cluster Coordinator. “One polio worker was killed, one driver of an organisation working in health was killed and one other is still missing,” he said.
He also said a health facility in Nika, in south-eastern Pakita province, had been damaged in conflict and had ceased functioning.