More killings hit polio health drive in Pakistan

20 December 2012 - 02:06 By Reuters
MY WIFE DOES THE WASHING: A worker peers up a chimney at a brick factory in Lalitpur, India, while renovating it
MY WIFE DOES THE WASHING: A worker peers up a chimney at a brick factory in Lalitpur, India, while renovating it

TWO workers in a polio eradication campaign were shot dead and one was wounded in attacks in four locations in Pakistan yesterday.

They were the latest in an unprecedented string of attacks over the past three days that has partially halted the UN-backed campaign.

The UN in Pakistan has pulled all workers involved in the immunisation campaign off the streets, spokesman Michael Coleman said.

The government insisted immunisation was continuing in some areas but many Pakistani health workers were refusing to go out.

Government officials said they would have to change tactics in the health campaign.

In yesterday's attacks, men on motorbikes shot dead a woman and her driver in the northwestern district of Charsadda, police and health officials said.

Hours earlier, a male health worker was shot and badly wounded in nearby Peshawar, capital of Khyber Paktunkhwa province.

Four other women health workers were shot at but not hit in nearby Nowshera, said Jan Baz Afridi, deputy head of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation.

According to police, two women health workers were also shot at in Dwasaro village, in Charsadda.

Many Islamists, including Taliban militants, have long opposed the campaign. Some say it is a cover for sterilising Muslims.

One militant commander said it could not continue unless attacks by US drone aircraft stopped.

The Taliban have repeatedly threatened health workers involved in the campaign. Some workers said they received calls telling them to stop working with the "infidels" just before the attacks.

But a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ihsanullah Ihsan, said his group was not involved in the violence.

On Monday and Tuesday six health workers were killed in the southern port city of Karachi, and in Peshawar. Five were women and the youngest was 17.

Health authorities in Karachi, a commercial hub of 18million people, suspended the polio eradication campaign in the entire province of Sindh.

"We didn't expect such attacks in Karachi," said the minister for human rights, Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who oversees the polio campaign.

Karachi is far from Taliban strongholds.

A spokesman for the Karachi police said the teams had agreed to inform police of their movements but had not done so.

"There has to be better coordination between the health department and police."

Khokhar said the drive would resume as soon as security was in place.

"The teams go into every little neighbourhood. You can understand that enormous resources are needed if we have to protect each and every team and worker, which we will have to now," he said.

Authorities in Khyber Paktunkhwa province said they would not accept the UN's recommendation to suspend the campaign because that "would encourage the forces that are opposing polio vaccination".

Khokar said Taliban hostility to the campaign increased after it emerged that the CIA had used a fake vaccination campaign to gather information about Osama bin Laden's hide-out. He was found and killed in a Pakistani town last year.

Pakistan had 20000 polio cases in 1994 but vigorous vaccination efforts had brought the number down to 56 this year, the government said.

A global vaccination campaign has eradicated the disease, which can paralyse or kill within hours of infection, from everywhere except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.