Anti-polio campaign: In sync attacks on polio vaccinators

Published: December 19, 2012
The brother of Naseema Akhtar, one of the slain polio workers, comforts relatives at a morgue in Karachi. PHOTO: REUTERS

The brother of Naseema Akhtar, one of the slain polio workers, comforts relatives at a morgue in Karachi. PHOTO: REUTERS


Five female health workers were shot dead on Tuesday in seemingly coordinated attacks at the start of a nationwide polio vaccination drive – raising fears for the safety of inoculators and highlighting resistance to a campaign highly politicised by the Taliban.

On the second day of the three-day vaccination campaign, four women were killed in less than an hour in Pashtun-dominated neighbourhoods of Karachi while a fifth worker, a teenager, was killed in Peshawar, police said.

The killings came a day after a man working on a government-World Health Organisation (WHO) project was shot dead in Karachi.

The shooting prompted a halt to the vaccination drive in Sindh. “The campaign has been stopped in the province with immediate effect,” said Sindh Health Minister Dr Sagheer Ahmed.

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, was shot dead in Orangi Town, while her colleague, 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.

At least 20 anti-polio teams, each comprising at least two members, kicked off door-to-door vaccination at 9am on Tuesday.

The two men injured in the attacks were the only eyewitnesses. Israr was unable to record his statement due to his precarious condition while Rashid failed to see the whole episode unravel.  “It all happened so fast. All I saw was two masked men on motorcycles,” Rashid told The Express Tribune.

Lack of coordination

Initial investigation led the police to believe that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) was behind the seemingly synchronised attacks.

DIG East Shahid Hayat blamed “the militants who have issued a fatwa (religious decree) against polio vaccination in the past” for the killings.

The victims were part of WHO-supervised polio vaccination teams, he said, adding that government and WHO officials were told to avoid taking such a risk without giving prior notice for approval.

“The girls who were killed in Landhi repeatedly asked for police assistance, but they were sent with assurances that they would be safe since they belonged to the area,” said Hayat.

DIG West Javed Odho also complained that organisers had failed to inform the police. Had the police known of the location and schedule of the planned activities, it would have sent personnel for sensitive areas, he added.

Hayat went on to add that a host of reasons could be attributed to the Pashtun community’s resistance to the vaccination campaign. The campaign is often condemned as a cover for espionage and more recently as a Western plot to sterilise Muslims, he said.

Peshawar attack

Meanwhile, a fifth worker, a teenager, was killed in Peshawar’s suburban Mathra area which borders the restive tribal areas – hotspots for polio and a haven for the Taliban who ordered a ban on polio vaccinations in June.

Farzana Bibi, 13, and her sister Amna, 19, were administering polio vaccinations in Shagai village when gunmen opened fire on them, killing Farzana.

She was driven to the Lady Reading Hospital in a critical condition, where she succumbed to her injuries, Dr Mumtaz Khan told The Express Tribune.

“We have no feud with anyone,” Farzana’s father said, adding that his daughter, Amna, was a fulltime polio worker, while Farzana worked part-time with her sister.

Police, however, claimed that the killing was the result of a rejected marriage proposal. “We have raided the house of the girl’s relatives who had proposed to her,” said an official of Mathra police station.

WHO suspends campaign

In a joint statement, the WHO and Unicef condemned the attacks and voiced their commitment to supporting Pakistan in its efforts to rid the country of polio and other diseases.

“Such attacks deprive Pakistan’s most vulnerable populations – especially children – of basic life-saving health interventions,” the statement said, while calling on officials to do their utmost to protect health workers.

The WHO, a partner in government efforts to eradicate polio, suspended vaccination activities “temporarily”, making it the second time this year that the programme has been put on hold.

“We advised the health department to stop the campaign after the incidents,” said WHO senior coordinator for polio eradication Dr Elias Durry.

However, despite the WHO directives, the district administration in Peshawar decided to continue the ongoing polio campaign. “The incident will definitely affect the ongoing anti-polio campaign but we will continue the drive to administer children that were the target of the sub-national immunisation days,” said Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Deputy Director Expanded Programme on Immunisation Dr Jan Baz Afridi.

Tribal areas

Launching the vaccination campaign in the tribal areas on Monday, authorities threatened to punish tribesmen who refuse to allow their children to be inoculated.

Siraj Ahmad Khan, the top official in 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.  (Additional input from Farhan Sharif in Karachi and AFP)

Published in The Express Tribune, December 19th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • hopeful
    Dec 19, 2012 - 4:03AM

    disgusting and depressing


  • Jim
    Dec 19, 2012 - 4:17AM

    What a sad, heartbreaking story. And what a sick, medieval lot the TTP is.


  • stevenson
    Dec 19, 2012 - 6:00AM

    It shows how cowardly these anti state criminals can be. Trying to deprive children of a means to defend themselves from disease by killing health care workers.


  • Dec 19, 2012 - 6:22AM

    Imagine if CIA didn’t use Shakeel Afridi for fake polio vaccination, Pakistan would have been different.

    Bear another tyranny which is escalated by US and Talibans fruiting it.


  • iLiberal
    Dec 19, 2012 - 6:28AM

    And happened in Pashtun dominated areas of Karachi? These Pashtuns, and forgive me for not being politically correct here, are utterly illiterate and extremist.


  • Aviator
    Dec 19, 2012 - 6:43AM

    The aim of the TTP, is to take the country back to a medieval time where there is no education, bloodshed and anarchy reign supreme, people live in caves, and where disease is rife.

    Pakistan remains one of only three countries in the world still to have Polio, a disease which attacks the central nervous system, and can cause paralysis. In fact, Pakistan is second only to Nigeria for Polio infection rates.

    So, by launching a Fatwa against Polio eradication, and todays killing of polio workers, which has resulted in the suspension of the Polio campaign in Pakistan, the TTP have achieved their aims.

    People who want to live in a place where disease and destruction is widespread, will truly be rejoicing today. So all the supporters, well wishers, and ‘apologists’ of the TTP, can congratulate themselves.


  • dude
    Dec 19, 2012 - 7:56AM

    only terrorists and extremists can survive in I R of pakistan


  • A. Khan
    Dec 19, 2012 - 8:31AM

    What is wrong with these people ? It is sickening that these people would try to stop a vaccination campaign from running. Words fail me, I am so angry and feel utterly powerless to do anything against these people.


  • Saran
    Dec 19, 2012 - 8:46AM

    Shot dead for working to eradicate polio! Only possible in pakistan…! :( In my opinion, pakistan is the most backward company, provided it’s past record of politicising Islam, intolerance (even with in muslims), resistance to morden education, economic mismanagement, gang wars…! I don’t see any hope for this country…! very pathetic!

    RIP for all those people who shot by these mindless idiots! May the God give peace to this country!


  • UMSyed
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:02AM

    …and still there are no Talibans in Karachi. Only because a certain party had raised the issue.


  • Salman
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:13AM

    It is so sad that it would happen to the citizens of my country and that too female citizens. Its even more sad that the Pakistani traditional media wouldn’t stop resorting to “conspiracy theories” I mean come on! In any other country, they don’t sit around their bums and cultivate theories. They actually do something about it and make sure that it never happens again! Why would other countries be so concerned about Pakistan which is in a declining state anyway? When even bigger Muslims countries such as Indonesia is going to become the next China i.e. the next economic powerhouse? Why wouldn’t they worry about its growing influence? When will our baby boomers learn that this propaganda (and continual negligence) to face up the facts will only destroy our coming generations and perhaps the state. People on this forum are saying that its foreign powers that are involved. Factually, the lady whose daughter got killed was quoted as saying “why would you come to this part of Karachi to deliver polio vaccines when you know the Talibans are based here” while mourning on the death of her daughter. Talibans are bloody insurgents and Pakistan needs to get rid off them. If not then I suppose next Bangladesh is not far away while we sit here make new theories in our own little bubbles!


  • blah
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:27AM

    hopeless countryRecommend

  • Diogenes
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:32AM

    This is what you get for harbouring Islamic militants so that you can continue fighting proxy wars. It’s PAKISTAN’S CHOICE to have their children be ridden with polio.


  • GhostRider
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:50AM

    So now what is it unholy to dream for healthy kids….sad sad day for all of us…and none came out for support of the families because they are poor.


  • dr afzal
    Dec 19, 2012 - 12:23PM

    credit goes to USA bcoz it used polio vaccine as a spy tool to hunt down osama bin in future forget traditional polio campaigns of people going dood to door to give drops(bcoz it can again be used as a spy tool)..


  • Qaisrani
    Dec 19, 2012 - 1:41PM

    Not being racist, whatsoever is wrong with muslims in the whole world, sameis the case with pushtuns in Pakistan.Recommend

  • Gujjar
    Dec 19, 2012 - 2:33PM

    This can happen only in Pakistan. UN might put a travel advisory banning people going to or coming from Pakistan.


  • Ali
    Dec 19, 2012 - 2:44PM

    Taliban had issued a fatwa against poliovaccinations and there has been attacks on anti polio squad…………..still the brave pakistan men send their women to give polio drops


  • Shehryar
    Dec 19, 2012 - 9:59PM

    I love Pakistan. But Pathans, we won’t put up with your stone age barbarism forever. An independent Punjab doesn’t seem half bad right now.


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