KARACHI: The threats against critical polio vaccination drives may have been for militant-infested tribal areas in north-western parts of the country – but they seem to have played out in none other than Pakistan’s commercial hub, Karachi.
Assailants opened fire at a United Nations vehicle in Karachi on Tuesday, wounding a foreign doctor working on a three-day polio vaccination campaign, and a driver, officials said. The incident took place in the neighbourhood of Sohrab Goth, an area notorious for criminal and terrorist activities. Mohammad Khan Junejo Colony, where the incident occurred, is a densely populated area and home to thousands of Afghan refugees and migrants from the tribal areas.
While officials are still not linking it directly yet, the attack underscores the backlash against polio vaccination drives in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden by US special forces in Abbottabad. The al Qaeda chief was located under the garb of a polio vaccination drive, run by Dr Shakil Afridi, who, it later transpired, was covertly helping the US locate Bin Laden. There was international outcry against the using of a vaccination drive as cover, particularly in Pakistan. The country is one of only three still struggling with the crippling disease, and where such drives are already viewed with suspicion in less developed areas, which are also at the highest risk.
The fear was not misplaced. Earlier this year, militants in the tribal areas banned inoculations, terming immunisation campaigns a cover for espionage. As a result, Pakistan on Monday postponed a polio immunisation campaign in parts of North and South Waziristan, jeopardising the health of more than 350,000 at-risk children.
The drive went ahead in cities such as Karachi. However, the feeling of relative safety was misplaced. A doctor from Ghana, Dr Dedo David, and his Pakistani driver were injured in Tuesday’s attack in Karachi and taken to a private hospital. According to medics, a bullet pierced David’s back and came out from his abdomen. However, his condition was stable. Maryam Yunus, spokesperson for the UN’s World Health Organisation, also confirmed this. “They are out of danger,” Yunus said.
The UN staff was travelling in an unmarked, white double-cabin pick-up, which led police officials to believe that it was probably a case of a robbery gone awry.
WHO also said later Tuesday that there was currently “no evidence to suggest that this was a deliberate or targeted attack against polio eradication efforts or WHO.”
“It could be related to the polio campaign, as there is resistance in the population against it. We are, however, still investigating the real motives,” local police station chief Mohammad Sultan told AFP.
DSP Iftikhar Lodhi said that the doctor was working on the anti-polio drive in Mohammad Khan Junejo Colony and had been living with the Pakistani team of doctors at a private clinic in the area. Lodhi went on to add that the assailants tried to block the UN vehicle but the driver refused to stop upon which one of them opened fire at them.
A health expert, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, also interpreted the attack as a sign of an alarming trend. He said there had been threats and announcements in mosques branding the vaccine anti-Islam and blamed “a new wave of attacks on polio workers” on the CIA’s use of doctor Shakil Afridi to help find Bin Laden. “It has become a very serious and critical issue. People suspect foreigners’ involvement in the programme and fake campaign by Afridi has given further credence to conspiracy theory,” he said.
He said polio workers were beaten in the capital Islamabad on Monday, a team fired on in the southern town of Jacobabad, and a motorcycle stolen in the southwestern town of Ziarat.
In its statement, WHO paid tribute to the “incredible bravery” of more than 200,000, mainly Pakistani volunteers who run every vaccination campaign, and said the shooting would not derail efforts to eradicate polio in the country. (With additional input from AFP)
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2012.
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