HERAT -- The Taliban prevented tens of thousands of children in Herat from receiving critical polio vaccines during a vaccination campaign that ran October 14-24, say local authorities.
The militants threatened health teams in remote areas of 14 districts, said Dr. Muhammad Asef Kabir, deputy director of the Herat Department of Public Health.
"The goal set for our health workers was to vaccinate 650,000 children under age five, but because of the Taliban's threats, 26% of the children were deprived of the polio vaccines... we cannot accept it," he said.
All armed anti-government elements must know that blocking vaccination of an irreversible condition is a crime against children, he said.
The health sector is not linked with the political and security agencies of the government, and it works toward rescuing human beings and protecting children, he said.
"This act of the Taliban has risked the lives of many children," he added. "If a child contracts polio, the Taliban must be held accountable."
"Herat Province and the rest of the provinces in the western region are under high threat of polio, and in the recent years a few polio cases have been recorded in southern provinces," he added.
"Back-and-forth travels among the provinces [southern and western provinces] can spread the polio virus to Herat," said Kabir.
A crime against humanity
Preventing children from being vaccinated is a crime against children and humanity, and the Taliban must be held accountable, agrees the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC).
"Afghanistan needs to join the countries that have eradicated polio," said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the AIHRC, said on October 19 during her visit to Herat. "It is a shame for Afghanistan at the global level that it still hasn't been able to end polio. Children have the right to have access to health services, and this is their human right."
"Preventing children from taking the polio vaccine means they [the Taliban] inflict a fatal disease on them," added Akbar.
"Human rights commissions, healthcare institutions and relief agencies must be immune from any attacks so that they can deliver their activities in full security," she said. "They are not involved in war, and their sole goal is to deliver assistance to human beings."
Islam insists on maintaining health, and Muslims must try to provide a better life for children, said Mawlawi Sayed Ahmad Hussaini, manager of Guidance Programmes at the Herat Department of Hajj and Religious Affairs.
"The Taliban should know that the disease of paralysis [polio] will one day threaten the lives of their own children as well," said Hussaini. "They should realise that if any child including theirs becomes paralysed... Afghanistan's new generation will be a sick and handicapped one."
"I, as a religious scholar, call on the Taliban and the public to vaccinate their children; Islam permits us all to use the polio vaccine as this prevents paralysis and gradual death in children."
One of the goals of recent military operations in some Herat districts was to provide an opportunity for health and relief agencies to implement their health and development projects, said Jilani Farhad, a spokesman for the Herat governor.
"The security forces are trying hard to clear the areas of the Taliban so that the polio vaccination campaign can run [smoothly]," he said.
"Reports that the local government of Herat has received show that the Taliban have blocked polio vaccination campaigns in remote areas of the districts, and residents have often expressed their concerns about the situation," Farhad said.
Security forces lack the personnel to guard all "health teams on their door-to-door campaign vaccinating children", he added. "Health teams and vaccination campaigners are civilians, and they work to help the unprivileged children."
Police alone cannot secure the areas where the Taliban have a huge presence, and in those areas the security agencies are launching joint operations to create an opportunity for the implementation of the polio vaccination campaign, said Abdul Ahad Walizada, a spokesman for the Herat police.
"The Taliban don't have the ability to directly face the security forces in Herat, so they have recently begun to harass residents," he added.
"[Their] preventing of the polio vaccination campaign and threatening health workers show that the group has been defeated by security forces," Walizada said.