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Health Workers Struggle to Deliver Polio Vaccines in Afghanistan

Health workers in Shahwalikot, Afghanistan are struggling to carry out an urgent polio vaccination campaign in the conflict-stricken region, and the United Nations is asking all sides to help.

On Monday, workers entered the area to begin vaccinating, but were only able to reach three of the 28 zones they set out to immunize, according to The New York Times.

The Shahwalikot district, in Kandahar Province, has seen the most poliovirus cases of any district in the world. There have been four new cases reported there this year, out of at least 18 worldwide.

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Afghan officials also reported a new case of poliovirus in Kandahar last week, bringing the number of cases in Kandahar to five. There has been a total of 12 cases nationwide in 2017, according to VOA News.

Toby Lanzer, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, said the increase in polio cases in this area could put hundreds of thousands of Afghan children at risk.

“The outbreak of polio in Shahwalikot means that Afghanistan remains one of only three countries in the world that is still polio-endemic, and polio eradication is at risk globally. This week’s campaign in Kandahar is more important than ever,” Lanzer said.

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The four cases of polio were reported in areas controlled by the Taliban, according to health workers in Shahwalikot.

The Taliban has made access difficult, but so have government forces, according to Dr. Sardar Wali, the district polio officer.

“[Government forces] detained a vaccinator and burned the center,” Wali told The New York Times. “In response, the Taliban banned the polio campaign in 11 zones under their control, and we do not know if they will allow the ongoing campaign.”

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Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid said that the militants were not refusing access to health workers.

Mujahid said the Taliban set conditions for the vaccination process, including that the vaccinators had to be hired from within their controlled areas and that they could not be accompanied by security forces, according to The New York Times.

There were 37 reported cases of polio in 2016, down from 350,000 in 1988. But while the virus exists anywhere, it remains a threat to children everywhere.

Global Citizen campaigns on the eradication of polio among other health initiatives related to the end of extreme poverty. You can take action here.