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Six Polio Immunization Workers Gunned Down in Pakistan

Wed, December 19, 2012

Six Pakistani women working to vaccinate children against polio were gunned down in coordinated attacks in Karachi and Peshawar Tuesday. Two male health workers were also wounded in the attacks in Karachi. One of the victims in Peshawar was a 17-year old girl supervising the immunization campaign.

Although it was not immediately clear who was behind the attacks, the Taliban has repeated denounced the anti-polio campaign as a “Western plot.”

AlJazeera.com reports that the health workers had received telephone calls warning workers they would regret helping the "infidel" campaign against polio.

The news outlet quoted Gul Naz, a health official overseeing the project in one of the areas where the women were shot. Al Jazeera also quoted a senior police officer, Shahid Hayat, who blamed "militants who issued a fatwa against polio vaccination in the past" for the killings. 

"They were fired upon by unidentified gunmen who rode away on motorcycles. Two women members suffered multiple gunshots and died on the spot," said Hayat.

Following the attacks, the government’s immunization program was suspended, calling to a halt 24,000 workers alone in Peshawar who were participating in the UN-backed program to eradicate polio from Pakistan.

To date this year, 35 children in Pakistan have been infected by the devastating illness which attacks the nervous system and can cause permanent paralysis within hours of infection. Most countries have wiped out the illness due to immunization programs.

Over the years, many religious leaders in Pakistan have spoken out against immunization programs – in particular, those sponsored by international agencies -- branding them as “conspiracies.”

Those suspicions were fueled when the United States, gleeful over the capture of Osama Bin Laden, which took place in Pakistan, released details of help the CIA received from a Pakistani doctor who was accused by Pakistan of running a fake vaccination program as a front to gather DNA sample from residents in the area in an attempt to locate relatives of Bin Laden. The doctor, Shakil Afridi, was subsequently given a prison sentence of 33 years of hard labor by a Pakistani court.

The current immunization program begun by the Pakistani government with the help of the UN had just begun a nationwide campaign the day before the shootings. The government's goal was to give oral polio drops to 34 million children under the age of five.

After the shootings, Pakistani authorities threatened to punish tribesmen in the country's tribal areas who refuse to allow their children to be inoculated.

Siraj Ahmad Khan, the top official in the North Waziristan tribal area, said the punishments would include a ban on monthly stipends to tribal elders, development work, civil service recruitment and issuing ID cards and passports.

There have been at least three other shootings involving polio workers this year alone.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from Islamabad, Zafar Jaspal, a professor at Quaid-e-Azam University, said in big cities like Karachi the health workers become "very easy targets,” making it much more difficult for the government to protect them from threats.