Peshawar: Gunmen in Pakistan mounted fresh attacks Wednesday on health workers carrying out polio vaccinations, taking the death toll to eight and prompting UNICEF and WHO to suspend work on a campaign opposed by the Taliban.
Pakistan is one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic. But efforts to stamp out the crippling disease have been hampered by resistance from the Taliban, who have banned vaccination teams from some areas.
Eight people working to immunise children against the highly infectious disease have been shot dead in Pakistan since the start of a three-day UN-backed nationwide vaccination campaign on Monday.
In the latest attack Wednesday, a female health worker and her driver were shot dead in Charsadda near Peshawar, the main town in the northwest, police official Wajid Khan told AFP. A second police officer confirmed the incident.
Another worker was shot and critically wounded while giving out polio drops earlier on Wednesday on the outskirts of Peshawar.
After reporting the man’s death, doctors at the city’s Lady Reading Hospital later said he was being kept alive on life support equipment.
“Medically he is dead but we have put him on a mechanical ventilator. This is our last try for his life but he is not responding,” Abdul Qadir, neurosurgeon in the hospital’s intensive care unit, told AFP.
Two other polio teams were targeted in similar attacks in the towns of Nowshera and Charsadda, police and health officials said, but the workers escaped unharmed. One passer-by was slightly injured in Nowshera.
Violence has blighted every day of the polio campaign so far: one health worker was shot dead in Karachi on Monday and four more were killed in the city with another gunned down in Peshawar on Tuesday.
The bloodshed prompted the UN children’s agency UNICEF and the World Health Organisation to suspend work on polio campaigns across Pakistan.
UNICEF spokesman Michael Coleman told AFP the two organisations halted work in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces after Tuesday’s attacks but had now extended the suspension nationwide.
Rumours about polio drops being a plot to sterilise Muslims have long dogged efforts to tackle the disease in Pakistan. Suspicion of vaccination programmes intensified after the jailing of a doctor who helped the CIA find Osama bin Laden in 2011 using a hepatitis campaign.
Polio cases in Pakistan fell to 28 in 2005 but have risen sharply in recent years, hitting 198 in 2011 — the highest figure for more than a decade and the most of any country in the world last year, according to the World Health Organisation.
There have been 56 infections so far in 2012.
There has been no claim of responsibility for this week’s attacks, but in June the Taliban banned immunisations in the tribal region of Waziristan, condemning the polio campaign as a cover for espionage.
In Waziristan, a hub for Islamist militants, the ban — also enforced as a protest against US drone strikes — has put the health of 240,000 children at risk, officials say.
After Tuesday’s violence, WHO and UNICEF issued a joint statement saying the attacks “deprived Pakistan’s most vulnerable populations — especially children — of basic life-saving health interventions”.
A spate of attacks in July prompted WHO to suspend vaccinations in part of Karachi.
A UN doctor from Ghana working on polio eradication and his driver were shot in the city, and three days later a local community worker who was part of the same campaign was shot dead in the same area.
Police said Tuesday’s killings in Karachi took place in suburbs dominated by Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in northwest Pakistan who have a sizeable migrant population in the city.
Pashtuns are also disproportionately affected by polio: though the community makes up only 15 percent of the population, it accounts for three quarters of polio cases, the WHO says.