Polio Workers Shot in Pakistan

A man working for the World Health Organization (WHO) on the polio eradication campaign was shot and killed in Karachi, Pakistan, on the evening of 20 July. Muhammad Ishaq was shot outside his clinic in a rough slum area of Karachi known as Gadap. Ishaq, who was from the local community, died en route to the hospital.

Just 3 days earlier, two gunmen shot a Ghanaian doctor working for WHO and his Pakistani driver, who were participating in a national polio vaccination campaign, in their car. The doctor was wounded in the stomach; the driver suffered a grazing wound on his shoulder. Both men are recovering.

After the first shooting, WHO cancelled the remainder of the vaccination campaign in Gadap and put in place stepped-up security measures.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the shootings and there is no definitive evidence linking the two events, says Bruce Aylward, an assistant director general of WHO and the longtime leader of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Similarly, it is unclear whether the shootings were random or targeted polio workers specifically. Until they get more evidence, says Aylward, "our operating assumption is that [the shootings] may be related, and that affects how we approach security."

Gadap is a densely populated slum with a large minority and migrant population; many of the residents are from the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, where opposition to any government-run or Western program is intense. Rumors abound that the polio vaccine is unsafe and is part of a U.S.-led campaign to sterilize Muslim children. About a month earlier, a leader of a Taliban faction in North Waziristan banned polio vaccination in his part of the tribal area until U.S. drone strikes stop.

Expressing its deep sorrow, WHO issued a statement saying the shootings will not distract from the progress Pakistan is making in its fight to wipe out polio. Pakistan, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, is one of three so-called endemic countries where transmission of the poliovirus has never been interrupted.