Three More Polio Workers Killed in Pakistan

Unidentified assailants shot and killed three polio vaccinators today in northwest Pakistan today. The deaths come on the heels of a spate of attacks on Monday and Tuesday and bring to nine the total number of polio workers killed in the past 3 days; two others were injured. In response, Pakistani government officials have suspended the 3-day polio vaccination campaign that was being conducted across the country, says Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the World Health Organization, one of the international partners supporting Pakistan in its effort to eradicate polio.

Details are still emerging, but the shootings took place in Peshawar, Nowshera, and Charsadda, all in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where another polio volunteer was killed on Monday. On Tuesday, five polio workers were shot and killed in the megacity Karachi, at the southern tip of the country.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but many suspect the Taliban, which has opposed polio vaccination, calling it a plot to sterilize Muslim children and threatening polio workers.

There is no word yet on when the vaccination campaigns in Pakistan, typically conducted four to six times a year, might resume. "For sure this is a major setback," to the global campaign to eradicate polio, says Rosenbauer, who calls the killings "horrific." The next step, he says, is to ascertain and address the root causes of the attacks and to "create a frontline environment where health workers can operate safely." Over the long history of the global eradication campaign, vaccination drives have been temporarily suspended in a number of countries but have resumed when the different factions reach "common ground on protecting the health of children," Rosenbauer says.

Since the global polio eradication initiative began in 1988, polio cases worldwide have dropped more than 99%. Pakistan is one of three countries, along with Nigeria and Afghanistan, where the virus remains entrenched.