Unidentified gunmen shot dead six health workers – five females among them – involved in an anti-polio campaign in separate attacks in Karachi and Peshawar on Tuesday.
The attacks have raised fears for the safety of workers immunising children against the crippling disease and has put the crucial vaccination drive in jeopardy.
An investigation by Pakistan Today into the killings revealed that some areas in Karachi, where people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) had settled down following security forces’ operations, had been highlighted as sensitive, as people in these areas had warned health officials of dire consequences if polio campaign was conducted.
These people have no political affiliation and had taken shelter in the slums of Karachi during security operations in KP.
Before the start of the three-day anti-polio campaign, health officials met with the people of these areas and tried to convince them to allow the campaign, but they refused the appeals and warned the officials of dire consequences if polio teams visited their areas.
“The officials of health department met with the people of Gulshan-e-Buner in Landhi, Khan Muhammad Goth in Baldia Town, Sohrab Goth and some areas of Orangi Town to convince residents to get their children vaccinated. These people consider polio vaccination un-Islamic and turned down all requests of letting their children be immunised,” Karachi Health Executive District Officer (EDO) Dr Imdadullah Siddiqui told Pakistan Today.
“Not only officials of provincial health department but a delegation of World Health Organisation (WHO) also visited these areas and tried to make the people of these areas agree to getting their children vaccinated,” the EDO said, adding that all their pleas fell on deaf ears. WHO even contacted clerics of the area to convince the people to get their children vaccinated, but all in vain.
The deputy commissioners (DCs) of these areas also held several meetings with locals, but they again refused the demands, he added.
Sindh Health Minister Sagheer Ahmed ordered a halt to the anti-polio drive in Karachi in the wake of the shootings.
The killing took place in three separate areas of the port city on the second day of a nationwide three-day vaccination campaign against polio, a disease endemic in Pakistan.
The first of the killings occurred in Karachi’s Landhi area, where unidentified assailants opened fire on a polio immunisation team, killing two female members. Police said there were no witnesses to the shooting.
The relatives of the deceased said there was no police accompanying the team when the incident occurred.
The second incident occurred in Raja Tanvir Colony in Karachi’s Orangi Town area where another polio team was attacked by unidentified assailants. Dr Shafiq, the team in-charge, said a female worker was killed on the spot while a male worker was seriously injured in the firing.
A third polio team was attacked in Mochko area’s Mohammad Khan Colony. A female worker was killed and another male worker was injured in the attack.
He was rushed to a hospital but expired due to excessive bleeding.
In a similar incident in Peshawar’s Mathra area, two female members of a polio team were fired upon. One of the two workers were injured and rushed to Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar for treatment. However, she succumbed to her injuries some time later. She was identified as Farzana.
Following the incidents, the World Health Organisation suspended the Polio Eradication Campaign in both cities, demanding absolute security from the government.
The deceased in Karachi attacks included Nasima (35), who was in-charge of the oral polio vaccines team in union council seven, Orangi Town, Kaniz Fatima (20), Fahmida (20) and Madiha (19).
A Sindh Health Department official said none of the killed women were regular employees of the department, rather they had been actively engaged for the polio immunisation exercise during special campaigns.
He said polio workers were hired in areas from where they belonged in order to ensure easy accessibility to children of the target group.
The official said all firing incidents were reported between 11am and 12 noon in Karachi.
“This was definitely a deliberate attempt to sabotage the anti-polio campaign in the province,” he said.
President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf condemned the attacks and ordered an immediate enquiry into the killings. Ashraf also directed authorities to arrange adequate security for polio teams.