Killed as they tried to save lives: Pakistan polio workers targeted

Vaccination programme suspended after five women are shot dead

Health experts have condemned a “devastating” assault by militants in which five female polio vaccinators were shot dead in co-ordinated attacks across two cities in Pakistan.

The murders highlight the challenge for health workers in what is one of the world's last bastions of the crippling disease. Four of the women were shot dead by men on motorbikes yesterday in three separate areas of Karachi, within the space of 20 minutes. The fifth woman was killed in Peshawar. A sixth vaccination worker, a man, was killed on Monday.

The women were working on a three-day vaccination scheme backed by the World Health Organisation in some of those areas where incidence of polio is the highest. The national drive, intended to give more than five million anti-polio drops, has been suspended in Karachi by the government.

No group has said it carried out the attacks but the Taliban is opposed to the health programme.

Polio often thrives in places where sanitation is poor. The ultimate aim of the project, which involves 90,000 health workers, is to provide drops to 35 million children. But the task of the government and the aid organisations has become increasingly difficult since the Taliban issued threats.

Sarah Crowe, Unicef's spokeswoman, said: "These attacks are a double tragedy. The work done to eradicate polio is pioneering. It has helped build up a foundation for stronger public health systems as health workers and polio vaccinators are often able to identify children who are missing out on routine immunisations. This comes at a time when Pakistan has made great strides against polio – last year 190 children contracted polio and this year it is 56. Every day the vaccination drive is on hold, more children lose out."

Sir Liam Donaldson, chairman of the independent monitoring board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, added: "The public health workers were doing heroic work to save children's lives in the final stage of the campaign to rid the world of a lethal and crippling disease. That they should lose their own lives in this appalling act of violence is devastating news for the global health community. In mourning their loss, we should honour their memories by showing their work will be carried on until every last child is safe from polio."

In many parts of Pakistan's north-west, the Taliban has banned such programmes, claiming they are a US-backed plan to sterilise Muslims. Antipathy to the vaccination drive has also increased since the CIA established a fake hepatitis drive in the city of Abbottabad to try to obtain information about Osama bin Laden.

Earlier this summer, more than 200,000 children in North and South Waziristan missed out on being vaccinated after the government failed to persuade militant leaders to lift their ban. "The polio workers have been targeted in these areas because there are elements of the Pashtun population – namely the Taliban – that are against the vaccination drive for various reasons," said Dr Guido Sabatinelli, head of the WHO's Pakistan's office.

"There is a misconception that the vaccine could be harmful to the children; there is a misconception that the polio workers are spies; and there is a misconception that the polio drives are somehow linked to military operations in the north and in the tribal areas."

Unlike India, which this year was declared polio-free, Pakistan is one of three nations still threatened by polio. The others are Nigeria and Afghanistan.The latest WHO figures suggest there have been 56 cases of polio confirmed in Pakistan this year with the results on about 300 other cases still outstanding. In 2011, almost 200 children were paralysed by the disease, the most in 15 years.

Yesterday's shootings, which were condemned by Pakistan's Prime Minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, took place in parts of Karachi dominated by Pashtuns, who have a large presence in the port city of 18 million people.

Shahid Hayat, a senior police officer, blamed the killings on "militants who issued a fatwa against polio vaccination in the past". In addition to the women who were killed, two male workers were critically injured.

Mr Ashraf has ordered an inquiry into yesterday's killings and asked the authorities to do more to ensure the safety of those involved in polio eradication.

Polio: Number of cases in 2012

Nigeria 118

Pakistan 56

Afghanistan 34

Chad 5

Source: IMB

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
people
News
people
News
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
news
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn