By Zia Ur Rehman

Dec 28, 2012-Jan 3, 2013

Nine health workers involved in Pakistan’s polio eradication campaign were gunned down in Karachi and Peshawar last week. Six of them were women. The assassinations are being seen as a coordinated attack against the immunization drive.

Five anti-polio campaigners were killed in Karachi’s Pashtun dominated areas. Umer Farooq Mehsud, 30, who was a polio vaccination volunteer in Union Council 4 area of Gadap Town, was shot dead on December 17. On December 18, Madiha, 19, and Fahmida, 44, were the first two to be slain in the Gulshan-e-Buner area of Landhi. Within 15 minutes, Naseema Akhtar, another female polio vaccinator, was shot dead in Orangi Town, while her colleague, Muhammad Israr, was critically injured in the attack. Thirty minutes later, Kaneez Jan was shot dead in Ittehad Town, while her coworker Rashid was injured in the attack.

Similarly, Farzana Bibi, who was administrating anti-polio vaccines in Suburban Mathra area of Peshawar, was killed on December 18. On December 19, a supervisor of the anti-polio campaign and her driver were killed by unidentified gunmen in Battagram police precincts in Charsadda district. Another anti-polio campaigner was wounded in Peshawar December 19 and died at Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) December 20.

UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and World Health Organization (WHO) have stopped all their field immunization campaigns after the attacks. WHO earlier estimated that 280,000 children living in the tribal areas were in need of polio vaccination.

“Out of a total target of 18.5 million for the last polio round, 14.9 million children were vaccinated throughout the country. More than 3.5 million children missed the immunization,” Dr Elias Durry, WHO’s senior coordinator for polio eradication in Pakistan, told AFP. “The WHO and all the partners in the polio eradication campaign salute the bravery of thousands of polio team members in the country who performed their duties in the line of fire to reach the 14.9 million children,” he said.

Jundullah, an outfit linked to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Al Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the attacks. “Polio vaccination is forbidden in Islam and the group will continue to target vaccination teams across Pakistan,” its spokesperson Ahmed Marwat told RFERL’s Pashto Radio Mashaal.

Taliban militants recently vowed to bar vaccination teams from entering the tribal areas, including Khyber Agency and North and South Waziristan, but the recent attacks on vaccination teams indicate that Taliban want to disrupt immunization campaigns across the country.

“The attacks on polio team workers in Karachi are coordinated acts and all incidents occurred in those Pashtun dominated areas of Karachi where Taliban militants operate,” said a senior police official who runs an anti-militancy operation in the city.

Some security analysts link the attacks on polio volunteers with reports that the CIA had used a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to set up a fake anti-polio campaign as a cover for the search for Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. The WHO said in its July 19 statement that Afridi was never part of any genuine or fake polio vaccination program in Pakistan and that baseless reports linking him to anti-polio efforts had damaged the ongoing vaccination campaign in the country.

“In the garb of these vaccination campaigns, the US and its allies are running spy networks in the tribal areas, and that has brought death and destruction in the form of drone strikes,” said a pamphlet distributed a few months ago by militants loyal to Mullah Nazir in Wana.

Others say the propaganda campaign against the immunization drive by religious elements and misconceptions associated with the vaccination drive are major outreach hurdles. “Religious extremists had persuaded a large number of Pashtuns in the past that the polio vaccine was un-Islamic and was being administrated at the behest of the West to sterilize their children,” said a health worker who runs a polio immunization campaign in Swat valley.

He said that he had first heard such fatwas by Sufi Mohammad in 1994, when he launched Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in Swat and Malakand. TTP Swat leader Fazlullah and his colleagues also preached on their illegal FM radios that polio vaccination caused infertility. Some clerics have even issued fatwas saying that any person who was crippled or died from polio would be given the status of a martyr, for refusing to be duped by a western conspiracy.

But, Tahir Ashrafi, who heads the Pakistan Ulema Council, opposes such edicts. He said clerics from his group would deliver sermons against the killing of health workers in Friday sermons. Pakistani traditions and Islam did not allow such attacks, he said, and that these women were martyrs because they were serving humanity.

Pakistan is one of the three countries in the world where polio has not been completely eradicated. The other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria. Militancy in Afghanistan and some parts of Pakistan has led to a rise in polio cases in those areas, imperiling efforts to wipe out the disease worldwide, said a study published on July 4 in the health journal The Lancet.

Last year, Pakistan reported the highest number of polio cases in a decade, 198 in total, compared to 144 in 2010, while Afghanistan had 81 cases – up from 30 the year before. This year so far, 23 cases of polio have been reported in Pakistan, a distinct improvement on the 59 reported by the same date last year.