KANDAHAR, 17 June 2007 (IRIN) - The UN has called upon all sides of the conflict between insurgents and government and international forces in the south, east and southeast of Afghanistan to cease fighting for a three-day polio immunisation drive beginning on 17 June.
Supported by the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF) and World Health Organisation (WHO), the immunisation campaign involves about 18,000 health workers going door-to-door in 13 provinces in a bid to immunise 1.3 million children under five years old with two drops of oral polio vaccine, Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Health told IRIN.
"We have called for a period of tranquility - no military operation - in order to be able to immunise every under-five child," said Tahir Pervaiz Mir, a WHO official in Kabul.
Insecurity has been a major challenge in the four immunisation drives undertaken already in 2007, restricting access to tens of thousands of children in the volatile south and southeast of the country.
"In the last several rounds, we could not reach at least 100,000 of the targeted children because of insecurity," Mir added.
Polio, in all its three main forms, has been eliminated all over the world except in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria, according to the UN.
In 1999, more than 60 polio cases were confirmed in Afghanistan, according to the UN Children's Agency (UNICEF). The number of cases fell to just four in 2004, when the Afghan government vowed it would eliminate the viral infectious disease by 2007.
However, 2006 saw an unexpected surge in the number of polio cases with 31 confirmed cases, predominantly in the south and east of the country, the Afghan healthy ministry has said.
"So far in 2007 we have three confirmed cases of polio - two in the south and one in the east of the country," said Gul Aga Ayub, a health ministry official.
Officials said the current polio immunisation drive will concentrate mostly on insurgency-plagued provinces, in order to free the country of the disease by 2008.
"We will help the health ministry conduct three more campaigns - two of which will be nationwide - until the end of this year," said Ghulam Haider Rafiqi, a UNICEF officer responsible for vaccinations.
A call for public support
In addition to insecurity, one of the major obstacles to immunising all children is a lack of awareness of the benefits of doing so and, for some, a Taliban-driven scepticism of the motives behind all vaccinations, Afghan officials say.
"It is a useless exercise," said Abdul Khaliq, a father of four children from Arghandab district in the volatile southern province of Kandahar. "Why don't they [the government and the UN] give us insecticides instead, which can stop scorpions, snakes and other insects stinging our kids?" asked Khaliq.
Another man, from Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand province in the south, told IRIN that Taliban fighters had threatened people against vaccinating their children and women.
"They [the Taliban] say vaccines will sterilise children and that will reduce the Muslim population of the world," said a resident of conflict-ridden Helmand.
Afghan officials say a public awareness campaign is underway, aimed at countering propaganda and encouraging men to let their children and women be immunised against polio, tetanus, measles and other preventable diseases.
Abdullah Fahim, a spokesman for the health ministry, said Islamic religious leaders and scholars who entertain wide influence among rural communities would be asked to preach and enlighten people on the conformity of polio, tetanus and measles' vaccinations with Islamic principles.