Attacks on polio fieldworkers are spiralling, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where rumours about vaccine being a ‘plot to sterilise Muslims’ have been dogging efforts to tackle the crippling disease.
In the latest attack, gunmen opened fire on two policemen escorting female vaccinators in Mardan district on Wednesday, killing one and wounding another. The shooting happened on the second day of a three-day vaccination campaign in Musam Kalay, a village in the Par Hoti area of Mardan.
“The shooting took place when two lady health workers – Bushra and Aysha – were vaccinating children at a house and the policemen were standing guard outside,” an official at the district polio control room told The Express Tribune.
He wished not to be named in the report because he was not authorised to speak to the media on record.
One policeman – identified as Raj Wali – died on the spot, while the other sustained injuries and was transported to the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar.
Amidst threats from militants, health authorities plan to vaccinate around 368,000 children below the age of five in Mardan district during the three-day campaign.
“Although there are security threats, especially in the rural areas, the campaign will continue regardless,” the official said. “We have not been asked [by senior officials] to suspend the campaign.”
Zakaullah Khan, the deputy commissioner of Mardan, confirmed the incident but said the vaccination campaign would continue regardless. He added that there were no prior threats to the police or vaccination teams.
Soon after the shooting, police mounted a manhunt for the attackers and DSP Khalid Nasim claimed that they have detained six suspects for questioning.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the killing, but Taliban militants have frequently attacked polio fieldworkers in the region.
On January 29, a policeman escorting a vaccination team was shot dead in the Gullo Dheri area of Swabi. Similarly, gunmen shot dead another police escort of vaccinators in the Khavo Kally area of Sheikh Maltoon Town, Mardan, on February 26.
In December last year, nine health workers were killed in Karachi, Peshawar and Charsadda in apparently coordinated attacks which had prompted the World Health Organisation to suspend polio vaccination campaigns.
Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries where polio is endemic. Polio cases in Pakistan hit 198 in 2011, the highest figure for more than a decade and the most of any country in the world, according to the UN. Six new cases have been reported so far this year – half of them were from K-P alone.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 11th, 2013.