Another attack on polio workers in Pakistan leaves 4 dead

Pakistani Polio Vaccination Team administering polio drops to children during "Anti-polio campaign" at a suburb of Lahore, Pakistan. File 2014. (Photo by Rana Sajid Hussain / Pacific Press/Sipa USA)

A team of polio health workers providing vaccines to children in Baluchistan, Pakistan, were attacked by gunmen riding on motorcycles today. Four team members were killed in the attack, health officials confirmed. Another three people were treated for injuries in the southwest region of the country, bordering Afghanistan.

It is yet another setback in the country’s effort to eradicate polio. While neighboring India recently succeeded in eliminating the virus that is known for its devastating effects on children, Pakistan saw the number of new polio cases reach the highest level in 15 years. The 246 cases in 2014 exceeds the 199 cases recorded in 2001. It is a dramatic rise from the 74 polio cases recorded last year.

Much of the trouble exists in the northwest tribal region of Pakistan, where today’s attack occurred. Brave health workers continue to try to bring vaccines to children in hopes of stemming the spread of polio, but face intermittent attacks by the Taliban and others.

Much of the concerns are based on fears that the vaccine campaigns are covert efforts to sterilize communities. Efforts were undercut by news of a U.S.-backed fake vaccine campaign – incorrectly identified as a polio vaccine – that sought to capture Osama bin Laden.

The attacks come at a time when officials are starting to express optimism that things will improve in Pakistan. Elias Durry, an official with the World Health Organization, told the Guardian yesterday that things looked up for 2015.

“The numbers look bad, but it isn’t hopeless,” Durry said in an interview with the Guardian. “We no longer have kids that are completely unreachable that allowed the virus to circulate in a way that is not controllable. If we do good quality work nationwide there is no reason not to control the virus.”

He said it will take some years to declare Pakistan free of polio. The success of the Pakistani army in North Waziristan earlier this year was cited as positive step. It opened up the region, where militants had imposed vaccine bans.

Today’s attack led to the immediate halt of the vaccine campaign in Quetta district. Police teams are often deployed with vaccine workers, but were not with the group when they were attacked, the New York Times reported. It is not clear whether the Taliban, which has a history of targeting and killing polio vaccine workers, was behind the attack.

Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic. Both Nigeria and Afghanistan are trying to reach zero cases, but also face challenges due to insecurity and fears about vaccines. Further complicating the problem are reported cases in Syria and Somalia, where instability has cut off health  services and essential vaccines.  Global polio cases are down significantly in the past two decades and groups like the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization are backing efforts to eradicate the virus.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.