The Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday asked the Taliban to stop preventing mobile polio vaccination teams from operating in southern Helmand province.
The militants have prohibited the Public Health Ministry from deploying mobile vaccination teams in the province since February, increasing the vulnerability of children to infection, death or long-term disability.
On July 7, the Taliban accused the mobile teams of unspecified spying activities. The teams have operated in Afghanistan since before 2001, and up until recently the rebels allowed the vaccinations to proceed in areas under their control.
“The Taliban prohibition on mobile polio vaccination teams puts children at risk, and jeopardises a global eradication campaign, of a disease that has crippled and killed millions of people,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
In a statement from the New York-based organisation , Kine said: “The Taliban should assist the operations of mobile vaccination teams rather than interfere with their lifesaving work.”
Afghanistan is one of only three countries in the world where wild polio virus remains endemic. International health experts consider Helmand and Kandahar to be the country’s epicenters of polio infection.
In the past year, the Taliban and other armed groups and pro-government forces have been implicated in killings, assaults and abductions against health workers and facilities, including polio vaccination teams.
In December 2012, unidentified gunmen killed a student volunteer assisting the polio vaccination program in northeastern Kapisa province. At least one health worker involved in a vaccination project in Afghanistan was abducted in the past year.
Under international humanitarian law, which applies to the Afghan government and the Taliban and other armed groups, parties to a conflict must protect civilians’ access to health care.
Government medical personnel and humanitarian aid workers must be allowed to carry out their work and be protected in all circumstances. Warring parties are prohibited from punishing someone for performing their medical duties.
“Children have already paid too high a toll from Afghanistan’s decades of armed conflict,” Kine said. “The Taliban should allow mobile vaccination teams to get back to work in Helmand.”