/ 19 December 2012

Eight UN polio eradication workers killed in Pakistan

A string of attacks in Pakistan has partially halted a UN-backed polio campaign.
A string of attacks in Pakistan has partially halted a UN-backed polio campaign.

This took place on Wednesday 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 staff involved in the campaign off the streets, spokesperson Michael Coleman said.

The government said immunisation was continuing in some areas without UN support although many workers refused to go out.

Women health workers held protests in the southern city of Karachi and in the capital, Islamabad.

"We go out and risk our lives to save other people's children from being permanently handicapped, for what? So that our own children become orphans?" health worker Ambreen Bibi said at the Islamabad protest.

Taliban attacks
The government was caught off-guard by the violence, saying they had not expected attacks in areas far from Taliban strongholds and they would have to change tactics in the health campaign.

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

He was referring to the southern commercial hub where there have been attacks this week.

"In far-flung areas where the threats are more pronounced, we have been providing polio teams [with] security."

Wednesday saw four separate attacks, all in the north.

In the district of Charsadda, men on motorbikes shot dead a woman and her driver, police and health officials said.

Hours earlier, gunmen wounded a male health worker in the nearby provincial capital of Peshawar.

He was in critical condition, said a doctor at the Lady Reading Hospital where he is being treated.

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.

Two women health workers were shot at in Dwasaro village in Charsadda, police said. It was not clear who was behind the violence.

Many extremists, including Taliban militants, have long opposed the campaign.

Some say it aims to sterilise Muslims, while 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 said they received calls telling them to stop working with "infidels" just before the attacks. But a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ihsanullah Ihsan, told Reuters his group was not involved in the violence.

Better coordination
On Monday and Tuesday, six health workers were killed in attacks in the southern port city of Karachi and in Peshawar.

Five were women and the youngest was 17. Five of the shootings happened in Karachi, home to 18-million people.

Health authorities there suspended the polio eradication campaign in the entire province of Sindh.

Karachi police spokesman Imran Shaukat said teams were supposed to tell police of their movements but had not done so.

"There has to be better coordination between the health department and police," he said. "We have decided that we will be more forthcoming and contact polio team heads ourselves."

Minister 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.

Resistance to end campaign
On Wednesday, police said they killed two people and arrested 15 during raids connected to the shootings.

Authorities in the northern Khyber Paktunkhwa province, the capital of which is Peshawar, said they would not accept the UN's recommendation to suspend the campaign.

"If we stopped the campaign it would encourage the forces opposing the polio vaccination," said provincial official Javed Marwat.

But their insistence the campaign continue angered health workers who said their colleagues told officials in Charsadda about threats before Wednesday's shootings. The officials insisted the vaccinations take place anyway.

Khokar said Taliban hostility to the campaign increased after it emerged that the CIA had used a fake vaccination campaign to try to gather information about Osama bin Laden, before he was found and killed in a Pakistani town last year.

High cases of polio
Pakistan had 20 000 polio cases in 1994 but vigorous vaccination efforts had brought the number down to 56 in 2012, the government said.

A global vaccination campaign has eradicated the disease from everywhere except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Polio can paralyse or kill within hours of infection.

It is transmitted person-to-person, meaning that as long as one child is infected, the disease can be passed to others. – Reuters