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Women anti-polio workers gunned down in Pakistan

Dec 19, 2012

The Taliban have reportedly accused the workers involved in anti-polio drives in the northwest of spying for the United States.

Five female health workers administering polio vaccines to children, including a 14-year-old girl, were killed in attacks by unidentified gunmen in the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Peshawar on Tuesday, prompting authorities to suspend their anti-polio campaign.

Another male volunteer engaged in WHO's anti-polio campaign was shot and killed in Karachi on Monday night, taking the number of anti-polio workers killed since Monday to six.

Sagheer Ahmed, the Health Minister of Sindh province, told reporters that four women workers were killed in three separate attacks on polio vaccinators in Baldia, Landhi and Orangi Town areas of Karachi on Tuesday morning.

Police officials had earlier said that three women and a man were killed in these attacks. Officials said two male polio vaccinators were injured in the attacks. The shootings occurred within the span of half an hour.

In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa capital Peshawar, gunmen targeted a group of anti-polio workers and injured a girl, who later succumbed to her injuries.

Officials said the girl, identified only as Farzana, was 14 years old. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks though the banned Pakistani Taliban has opposed the anti-polio campaign in the past, saying the vaccines are aimed at "sterilising" children.

The Taliban have also accused workers involved in anti-polio drives in the northwest of spying for the US. Provincial Health Minister Ahmed said he had ordered the immediate halting of the polio vaccination campaign in Sindh following the attacks.
He strongly condemned the attacks on polio workers and described them as a conspiracy against efforts to make Sindh "polio free".

The WHO too suspended its anti-polio drive in Karachi. Officials said they were assessing the situation across the country to decide on continuing the campaign in other areas.

The development marked a major setback for Pakistan's efforts to eradicate polio. Tuesday’s attacks in Karachi were carried out in areas with a sizeable Pashtun population.

A large number of Pashtuns have migrated to Karachi following unrest in northwest Pakistan.

Recent reports have said that a large number of Taliban militants had entered the port city of 18 million people along with the migrants.

Anti-polio workers of the WHO have been attacked several times in Karachi in recent months.

Recently, a UN doctor from Ghana working for the anti-polio campaign and his driver were shot and injured in Karachi.
Overall, since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched, the number of cases has fallen by over 99%. In 2012, only three countries in the world including Pakistan and Afghanistan remain polio-endemic.

Failure to stop polio in these last remaining areas could result in as many as 200 000 new cases every year, in a span of ten years, all over the world.

Recognizing both the epidemiological opportunity and the significant risks of potential failure, the World Health Assembly in May 2012 adopted a resolution declaring the completion of polio eradication a programmatic emergency for global public health.

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