Karachi, Pakistan: Gunmen shot dead five women working on U.N.-backed polio vaccination efforts in two different Pakistani cities on Tuesday, officials said, a major setback for a campaign that international health officials consider vital to contain the crippling disease but which Taliban insurgents say is a cover for espionage.
A sixth worker, also a woman, was killed on Tuesday in the northwestern city of Peshawar, which lies close to the tribal areas.
“It is a blow, no doubt,” said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, an adviser on polio to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf. “Never before have female health workers been targeted like this in Pakistan. Clearly there will have to be more and better arrangements for security.”
No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but most suspicion focused on the Pakistani Taliban, which has previously blocked polio vaccinators and complained that the United States is using the program as a cover for espionage.
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf condemned the attacks. He said in a statement that the country had to neutralize the message of those resisting the government’s efforts to immunize the population against polio.
A joint WHO-Unicef statement said such attacks “deprive Pakistan’s most vulnerable populations — especially children — of basic life-saving health interventions”.
“We call on the leaders of the affected communities and everyone concerned to do their utmost to protect health workers and create a secure environment so that we can meet the health needs of the children of Pakistan,” it added.
UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said UN chief Ban Ki-moon condemned the “senseless and inexcusable attack on health workers” and was to meet Pakistan’s UN ambassador Masood Khan on Tuesday over the issue.
US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also condemned the attacks, saying: “Any attack on health workers anywhere in the world is unacceptable.”
Campaign to eradicate polio from the northwest tribal region of Pakistan is on hold after fatal attacks on health workers vaccinating children, the Balochistan government said Tuesday.