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
Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
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: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders