Two people were killed and up to 20 more injured after Taliban militants used a bomb to target a team delivering polio vaccination drops to children in north-west Pakistan.
In the latest of a series of assaults on volunteers, nurses and police officers involved in efforts to confront the country’s polio problem, the bomb was set off outside a health clinic on the outskirts of the city of Peshawar. A police officer and a member of a local anti-Taliban group were killed.
The Taliban have repeatedly attacked vaccination workers, claiming the programme is part of a CIA-led plot to sterilise Muslims. Peshawar has been rocked by at least four major militant attacks in the last few weeks, which have targeted a church and a market.
“Jews and the United States want to stamp out Islamic beliefs through these drops,” a spokesman for the Jundullah faction of the Taliban, Ahmed Marwat, told Reuters.
Along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is one of three nations where polio remains endemic. Eight new cases were confirmed in Pakistan last week, bringing the total this year so far to 36, according to the website of Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a project involving various national and provincial governments, the World Health Organisation and Unicef.
Resistance to the vaccination programme in Pakistan has been strongest in the north-western tribal areas where the issue has become particularly politicised. Last year the Taliban said polio workers cold not operate in North and South Waziristan until drone US strikes were halted.
Suspicion about the programme increased after it emerged that the CIA had recruited a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, who was asked to establish a fake vaccination programme in the city of Abbottabad in a plan to obtain DNA samples from the children living in the compound of Osama bin Laden. After Bin Laden was killed and Mr Afridi’s role become known, he was jailed for 35 years.
The door-to-door effort to persuade families to give polio vaccination drops to their children to counter the crippling disease is often led by a woman who is paid just a few pounds a day. When the authorities are unable to provide sufficient security, these women bear the brunt of the Taliban attacks.
Last year, gunmen killed four femake polio workers in the city of Karachi on the same day, and two women were killed in Peshawar, very close to where Monday morning’s bomb was detonated, apparently by remote control. In Nigeria, Islamist gunmen killed nine health workers in February.
As part of the effort to persuade families to give children the drops, the programme coordinators in Pakistan have involved religious leaders and other influential members of local communities to support the scheme.