Uzbekistan teaches children about healthy lifestyle
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa helps flood victims
Kyrgyzstan to build Bishkek-Osh highway
Karachi authorities restore order to Lyari
Taliban militants kill 8 anti-polio workers
President Zardari has ordered an enquiry into the killings.
By Zia Ur Rehman
ISLAMABAD – Aiming to thwart Pakistan’s polio eradication efforts, militants have killed eight anti-polio medics and injured several others in Karachi's Pashtun-dominated areas and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) during the ongoing anti-polio campaign December 17-19.
The Pakistani government December 17 launched a three-day anti-polio campaign with plans to vaccinate 34m children up to age 5. However, the murders of the anti-polio volunteers in Karachi and Peshawar have prompted authorities to suspend the effort.
Both the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jundullah, a Sunni militant group with links to al-Qaeda, have claimed responsibility, according to various media reports.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari December 18 condemned the slayings and directed the chief secretaries of Sindh and KP to investigate the incidents and submit their reports immediately.
Police and Rangers, acting on information obtained from suspects who were arrested earlier, conducted door-to-door searches December 19 in parts of Sohrab Goth, including in Al-Asif Square in Karachi, in pursuit of the militants, killing two suspects and arresting at least 20 others, Samaa TV reported.
Police have information that might lead them to the Peshawar culprits, said Javaid Khan, Peshawar rural circle superintendent of police.
Killing of anti-polio medics
A supervisor of the anti-polio campaign and her driver were killed December 19 by unknown gunmen in Charsadda District. On the same day another anti-polio volunteer was injured by gunfire in the Daudzai area of Peshawar.
Those attacks came within days of six other killings of vaccinators.
The first slaying victim was Umer Farooq Mehsud, 30, a polio vaccination volunteer in the Union Council 4 area of Gadap Town, who was fatally shot December 17.
Multiple murders occurred December 18. Madiha, 19, and Fahmida, 44, were killed in the Gulshan-e-Buner area of Landhi, Karachi.
Within 15 minutes, Naseema Akhtar, another female polio vaccinator, was killed in Orangi Town, while her colleague, Muhammad Israr, was critically injured.
Thirty minutes later, Kaneez Jan was fatally shot in Ittehad Town, while her co-worker, Rashid, was injured.
And in Peshawar, Farzana Bibi, who was administering vaccines in the Suburban Mathra area, was also killed December 18.
Taliban oppose campaign
The Taliban have issued threats against the polio drive, and initial investigations also led the police to conclude that the TTP was behind the violence in Karachi and elsewhere.
"The militants who issued a fatwa (religious decree) against polio vaccination in the past are behind the killing of anti-polio workers in Karachi," Shahid Hayyat, a senior police official in Karachi, told Central Asia Online.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio is still endemic. 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.
Taliban militants recently vowed to bar vaccine teams from Pakistani tribal areas, including Khyber and North and South Waziristan.
Major barriers to outreach include misconceptions associated with the vaccinations and a propaganda campaign by religious elements against immunisations, said Abdul Waheed, a social activist who runs the anti-polio campaign in Pashtun-dominated areas of Karachi.
Religious extremists had persuaded many Pashtuns in the past that the polio vaccine was un-Islamic and represented a Western plot to sterilise their children, Waheed told Central Asia Online.
The situation changed after the Pakistani government made an effort to fight the misconception, said Waheed, referring to a joint campaign conducted by the government, the National Research and Development Foundation and about 3,000 clerics.
Effect of campaign's suspension
WHO and UNICEF joined the Pakistani government and the Sindh and KP provincial governments in condemning the multiple attacks.
“Such attacks deprive Pakistan’s most vulnerable populations – especially children – of basic life-saving health interventions,” WHO and UNICEF in a joint statement said December 18.
Similar denunciations came from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association and the Pakistani National Assembly. Such shootings are an effort to rob Pakistan's children of a healthy future, HRCP Chairwoman Zohra Yousaf said. In a unanimous resolution, the National Assembly called for "maximum punishment" for the culprits.
The Sindh government has suspended the vaccination campaign because of concern over the safety of health workers, Sindh Health Minister Dr Saghir Ahmed said.
However, the Punjab government has put district administration and police on high alert after unknown culprits shot at teams administering polio drops in Karachi and Peshawar.
Punjab Health Secretary Arif Nadeem asked relevant district commissioners to send police with vaccination teams in sensitive areas of Rawalpindi, Dera Ghazi Khan, Attock, Mianwali and Rajanpur so that they could perform their duties peacefully, The Nation reported December 19.
Yasir Rehman contributed to this article.