The Taliban have halted an annual polio vaccination campaign in a remote part of Afghanistan, according to a senior official, raising concerns that opposition to the critical immunisation drive could be spilling across from insurgent groups in neighbouring Pakistan.
The Taliban have controlled parts of poor, isolated and mountainous Nuristan province for several years, but they have never before prevented medical workers reaching children in their strongholds, said the governor Tamim Nuristani.
“For the past three years Waygal district has been under the Taliban, they are very strong there. For the last two years the vaccine process went on in the district, but this year they stopped it,” he told the Guardian by phone from the provincial capital, an island of government control in the restive area.
“They are saying in terms of religion it is a problem and we have to stop it. In Kamdesh district we also have problems, they have stopped the programme,” he added.
Afghanistan is one of just three countries, along with Pakistan and Nigeria, where polio is still endemic. Kabul reported a surge of cases in 2011, and in some areas only two-thirds of children have been protected against the disease, which can kill or paralyse.
There have long been fears that the Pakistani Taliban’s opposition to polio vaccination campaigns, which militant leaders have banned at least three times, could influence Afghan groups which have so far supported or at least tolerated immunisation teams.
A spokesman for the Taliban confirmed that the anti-polio campaign was stopped in parts of Nuristan, but denied the insurgent group played any role.
“I want to refute this. The Taliban never stop the vaccination. It’s a health issue. We have no problem with it,” a spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said. “Local people are stopping the process. The Taliban can’t force the local people to let it go ahead.”
But Nuristani said he had checked with local clerics, who did not consider the vaccination un-Islamic, and the people of Nuristan who, he said, were keen to protect their children. “I am sure in religious terms there is no problem. I have spoken with several members of our Ulema council and they have said there is no problem with it, because it is a health issue.”
The UN, which helps organise the national vaccination programme, said the Afghan Taliban had not generally tried to prevent healthcare workers reaching children.
“We have not faced any policy level resistance from the Taliban,” said Vidhya Ganesh, deputy representative for Unicef in Afghanistan.
“Usually it’s local negotiations, local issues which we can resolve through our interlocutors in the community. Over the last year access has actually been improving quite well,” she added.
But there are believed to be a high number of foreign fighters among insurgents in Nuristan, many of them with very extreme views. Around a year ago internal refugees fleeing Waygal and Kamdesh described the rule of a shrouded “vice and virtue police” said to surpass even hardline Taliban. Many of the men spoke with foreign accents.
Across the border, the Pakistani Taliban this summer in effect banned polio eradication in South Waziristan, one of the most troubled areas of the country, in an effort to force the US to end drone strikes.
Leaflets distributed in the area accused health workers who administer anti-polio drops of being US spies. Several have since been killed.
The Afghan health ministry declined to comment on the polio campaign in Nuristan, saying senior officials were in meetings to discuss reports from newly returned vaccination workers.