Four members of a polio vaccination team, including three women, were killed and three others were wounded in a targeted attack in suburban Quetta Wednesday morning. Health authorities temporarily suspended the immunisation campaign, but vaccinators said they would not go back to work unless their security was ensured.
“A team of seven polio workers was getting ready to launch the campaign when two men riding a motorbike opened fire on their minivan on a link road in the Eastern Bypass area,” Home Secretary Akbar Durrani said.
One of the injured vaccinators said the gunmen identified them before opening indiscriminate fire. “They said, ‘Are you polio workers?” And when we said, ‘yes’, they started firing,” the injured woman told the media from her bed at the Provincial Sandeman Hospital.
“We were en route to the union council assigned to us after collecting vaccines from the Team Support Centre. The driver of the minivan fled when the gunmen on the motorbike pulled out in front and flashed a gun,” she said. “First they shot the women in the front seat and then sprayed the back seat with bullets.”
The gunmen fled the scene unidentified and unchallenged. The vaccination team leader, who wished to be identified by her first name Rubi, told journalists that she and her colleagues got out of the minivan after the gunmen fled – but minutes passed before they could flag down help.
“I was bleeding and feeling so weak but I struggled to get down and saw a policeman nearby. I screamed for help but he walked away and disappeared down a street,” she said. “I kept on screaming, begging for help but vehicles wouldn’t stop.”
The casualties were driven to the Provincial Sandeman Hospital in the minivan. “We received two bodies and five injured people. Of the injured, two died during the course of treatment,” the hospital’s Medico-Legal Officer Dr Noor Baloch told The Express Tribune. He added that three young women and a young man are among the dead. “Most of the victims were shot in the head and chest,” he added.
The dead vaccinators were identified as two sisters Sania Bangulzai and Hameeda Bangulzai, Hamida Khawaja Khail and Ijaz, all residents of Quetta. They are paid less than $5 a day for the vaccination campaign.
The provincial government has assigned two police escorts for each vaccination team in view of security threats to vaccinators. However, the field workers targeted on Wednesday had no police escort. “They were en route to their assigned union council. They had not started vaccination,” SSP Imran Qureshi told The Express Tribune.
It was the third attack on polio field workers in Quetta over the past two years. “It is the second incident in the Eastern Bypass area. Law enforcers have been directed to arrest the culprits,” the home secretary told The Express Tribune. “The security lapse is being investigated.”
Provincial Health Minister Rehmat Saleh Baloch said the emergency vaccination campaign in 18 areas of Quetta has been suspended for a day and it will resume on Thursday. “The campaign will not stop in any part of Balochistan,” he told journalists at a news conference. He promised 100% security to the field workers.
However, the president of the Lady Health Workers Employees Union, Hafiz Haleem Shah, said they would boycott the vaccination campaign. At least 850 health workers were taking part in the seven-day campaign against nine deadly childhood infectious diseases, including polio.
“The health workers cannot go back to work under such dangerous circumstances,” he said. “At least eight health workers have been killed in different parts of Balochistan during the last two years,” he added. He said the government should investigate why security was not provided to the health workers despite serious threats to their lives.
Pakistan is one of the only three countries where polio remains endemic while attempts to stamp out the crippling virus have been hampered by opposition from militants and attacks on vaccinators.
According to an official tally, 260 polio cases have been confirmed so far this year. Of these, 14 cases have been reported in Balochistan – 13 in Quetta zone alone which comprises Quetta, Qila Abdullah and Pishin districts.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 27th, 2014.