Health worker and two officers shot dead during Pakistan polio vaccine drive

·3-min read
The funeral of two police officers killed while guarding the polio vaccination team in the Data Khel area of North Waziristan, tribal region near the Afghan border - STRINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
The funeral of two police officers killed while guarding the polio vaccination team in the Data Khel area of North Waziristan, tribal region near the Afghan border - STRINGER/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Gunmen shot dead two policemen and a health worker as they went door-to-door administering polio drops in a hotspot for the crippling virus.

The killers escaped on motorbikes and there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in the North Waziristan district of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The attack was the latest in a series of killings of polio teams and their police escorts as Pakistan tries to stamp out the childhood scourge in border districts home to a web of militant groups.

North Waziristan has been home to all 11 of Pakistan's poliovirus cases this year, in a spike that has dampened hopes that the country was on the cusp of eradicating the poliovirus.

The latest blow to the global eradication campaign came a week after polio was detected in the UK for the first time in four decades.

Police escort a polio team during a door-to-door vaccination campaign in Karachi - Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP
Police escort a polio team during a door-to-door vaccination campaign in Karachi - Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP

The appearance in sewage samples underlined fears that the virus may spread back to countries once-considered polio-free if it cannot be stamped out in its last haunts.

The poliovirus detected in north and east London is thought to have been imported from overseas and arose from a weakened strain used in polio drops. In rare cases this weakened virus used to trigger an immune response mutates as it circulates in the population and returns to a more harmful strain, infecting people who have not been vaccinated.

Polio teams in Pakistan have come under repeated attack for more than a decade. Two police guards were shot dead in December in different shootings and another was killed in January. A female polio worker was shot dead in March.

Militancy, poverty and deep suspicion

Shehbaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister, said he was “deeply anguished” by the killings and ordered the interior minister to conduct a review.

A spokesperson from Unicef, the United Nations children's body, said those killed “were among hundreds of thousands of heroes who work selflessly to end polio”, adding: “We express our sympathy to families.”

Pakistan recorded only one case of the poliovirus in 2021, and there was a hiatus of 15 months without any detections until earlier this year. However the subsequent spike has again underlined how stubborn the virus can be.

Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan are the only two countries where the wild virus remains endemic. Both are conducting vast internationally-funded campaigns to eradicate the virus while having to deal with militancy, poverty and deep suspicion among some residents.

A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door vaccination campaign in Karachi this week - Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP
A health worker administers polio vaccine drops to a child during a door-to-door vaccination campaign in Karachi this week - Rizwan TABASSUM/AFP

Conspiracy theories that polio drops are a western plot to harm or sterilise Muslims, or that they are harmful, have been hard to overcome. Residents of remote villages without water, electricity or any kind of state support also say they resent the government's focus on polio, rather than hunger, water or other basic needs.

Such resentment or suspicion leads a stubborn small minority to refuse drops, allowing the virus to continue to spread.

Shahzad Baig, a coordinator for Pakistan's polio program, urged “all parents and caregivers to get their children vaccinated instead of hiding them or refusing to (let them) take the necessary drops”.

“It is important to realise that the polio virus still exists in our surroundings and no child is safe until all children are truly vaccinated,” he added.

Shuja Khan, a Pakistani father whose son was stricken by polio in North Waziristan, posted a video message on Twitter. Holding his boy in his lap, he appealed on parents to inoculate their children and avoid his family's ordeal.

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