For years, the Afghan Taliban have cooperated with international organizations and, indirectly, with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai to eradicate polio in Afghanistan, one of only three countries in the world where it remains endemic.
Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Afghan Taliban’s reclusive leader, has long issued safe-conduct letters to polio-vaccination teams working in areas the insurgency controls.
But in a statement on Monday, the group accused health workers of spying on them, and said it has temporarily banned polio vaccinations in restive Helmand province.
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The Taliban statement singled out the United Nations, saying the world body “attempted to send vaccinators to areas controlled by the Islamic Emirate to spy.” The insurgency, which sees itself as a government-in-waiting, refers to itself as the Islamic Emirate.
This is the first time the Afghan Taliban have openly declared their hostility to the antipolio campaign, which the Afghan government runs with the help of the World Health Organization and Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency.
On the other side of the border, the Pakistani Taliban—a group loosely affiliated with the Afghan Taliban—have banned polio vaccinations since 2012 and have repeatedly attacked polio workers. This allowed the virus to spread and now Pakistan has the highest number of polio cases in the world: 88, against Afghanistan’s seven, according to WHO data.
While the Taliban announcement came on Monday, the partial ban on the immunization program was implemented in March, according to the Afghan government and Unicef.
“Before that they were cooperating, indirectly of course,” said Faizullah Kakar, the Afghan government’s top antipolio official. “It was good until March.”
Because of the ban, hundreds of thousands of children in Helmand haven’t been vaccinated, Mr. Kakar added. He said the Taliban have also intermittently halted the polio immunization in Kunar, a province that borders Pakistan, but that now the program there is functioning normally.
Unicef and Afghan officials are now working to regain access to insurgent-controlled parts of Helmand, where militants last month launched a major offensive against government forces.
“In a situation like Helmand, there is ongoing fighting, the situation is complicated and gaining access for vaccines becomes more difficult,” said Alistair Gretarsson, a spokesman for Unicef’s mission in Afghanistan. “We’ll do whatever we can, whatever it takes to reach every child with the vaccines.”
In their statement, the Afghan Taliban said requests to meet with Unicef and WHO officials went unanswered. Mr. Kakar, the Afghan government official, said the Taliban last month asked for the meeting to take place in the Gulf emirate of Qatar. Mr. Gretarsson said he wasn’t aware of the request for a meeting.
Adding to the existing challenges to the country’s immunization program, last month as many as 100,000 Pakistani civilians crossed the border into Afghanistan to escape a Pakistani military offensive in the tribal region of North Waziristan, a militant stronghold.
Among them were tens of thousands of children who hadn’t been immunized against polio. To prevent the virus from spreading, health workers launched a massive campaign to vaccinate all refugee children, Afghan and international officials said.