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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Interactive / Mobile Developer

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer - Midweight

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Front End Developer

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer - Midweight / Senior

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This digital production agency ...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks