(New York) The Taliban insurgency should stop preventing mobile polio vaccination teams from operating in Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, Human Rights Watch said today. Since as early as February 2014, the Taliban have prohibited the Afghan Public Health Ministry from deploying mobile vaccination teams in the province, increasing the vulnerability of children in the province to infection, death, or long-term disability.
In a July 7 statement, the Taliban accused the mobile teams of unspecified “spying” activities. Mobile vaccination teams have operated in Afghanistan since before 2001, and up until recently the Taliban has allowed the vaccinations to proceed in areas under its control.
“The Taliban prohibition on mobile polio vaccination teams puts children at risk, and jeopardizes a global eradication campaign, of a disease that has crippled and killed millions of people,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The Taliban should assist the operations of mobile vaccination teams rather than interfere with their lifesaving work.”
Efforts to convince the Taliban to allow the teams have been unsuccessful. The Public Health Ministry has talked with local elders in Helmand province who are in “indirect contact” with the Taliban about the need to end the ban. A ministry representative told Human Rights Watch that the Taliban has not harmed any of the vaccination team members nor has it disrupted operations of clinics in Helmand province that offer polio vaccinations. The Taliban statement gave no details about the “spying” activities it linked to mobile vaccination teams.
Afghanistan is one of only three countries in the world where wild polio virus remains endemic. International health experts consider Helmand and Kandahar provinces to be the country’s epicenters of polio infection. Until the ban was put in place, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) worked in southern Afghanistan, including Helmand province, using roaming vaccination teams in an effort to eliminate the virus from the country. In November 2013, UNICEF hailed a 12-month absence of any recorded cases of polio in southern Afghanistan as an “encouraging milestone” in the success of the vaccination program.
In the past year, the Taliban and other opposition armed groups and pro-government forces have been implicated in killings, assaults, and abductions against health workers and facilities, including polio vaccination teams. In December 2012, unidentified gunmen killed a student volunteer assisting the polio vaccination program in northeastern Kapisa province. At least one health worker involved in a vaccination project in Afghanistan was abducted in the past year.
Under international humanitarian law, which applies to the Afghan government and the Taliban and other armed groups, parties to a conflict must protect civilians’ access to health care. Government medical personnel and humanitarian aid workers must be allowed to carry out their work and be protected in all circumstances. Warring parties are prohibited from punishing someone for performing their medical duties. Hospitals, health clinics, and other medical units likewise must be protected from attack.
“Children have already paid too high a toll from Afghanistan’s decades of armed conflict,” Kine said. “The Taliban should allow mobile vaccination teams to get back to work in Helmand.”