Polio teams attacked in Afghanistan, four people killed

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Gunmen on Tuesday targeted members of polio teams in eastern Afghanistan, killing at least four staffers, officials said.

No militant group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in the city of Jalalabad. Along with the four killed, at least three members of the polio vaccination teams were wounded, said Dr. Jan Mohammad, who coordinates the anti-polio drive for the country’s east.

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Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the only two remaining countries in the world where polio is endemic, after Nigeria was last year declared free of the virus.

In March, the ISIS group said it shot and killed three women who were part of a polio vaccination team, also in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.

The ISIS affiliate is headquartered in eastern Afghanistan and while the militant group’s numbers are believed to have gone down after recent government offensives and clashes with the rival Taliban, ISIS militants have lately stepped up attacks on minority Shia Muslims.

ISIS has also taken responsibility for several targeted killings that have taken aim at the country’s nascent civil society, as well as journalists and legal professionals.

Though struggling with a new, third surge in coronavirus cases, the Afghan government has in recent months sought to inoculate 9.6 million children against polio with the help of UNICEF. In 2020, Afghanistan reported 54 new cases of polio.

A child receives a polio vaccination during an anti-polio campaign on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (File photo: Reuters)
A child receives a polio vaccination during an anti-polio campaign on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan. (File photo: Reuters)

The increased violence and chaos comes as the US and NATO are completing their military withdrawal from Afghanistan. The estimated 2,500-3,500 US soldiers and 7,000 NATO allied troops are to be gone by September 11 at the latest, though there are projections they may be gone by mid-July.

Though not uncommon in Afghanistan, attacks on polio vaccination teams are more frequent in Pakistan, where the Pakistani Taliban and other militants regularly stage attacks on polio teams and security forces escorting them. They also target vaccination centers and health workers, claiming that anti-polio drives are part of an alleged Western conspiracy to sterilize children or collect intelligence.

Last week, two policemen who were providing security to polio vaccinators were shot and killed in northwest Pakistan.

These attacks increased after it was revealed that a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign was used as a ruse by the CIA in the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was killed by US commandos in 2011 in Pakistan.

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