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Pakistani gunmen staged new attacks Wednesday on health workers carrying out a nationwide polio vaccination program. Six workers were killed Tuesday as they went house to house to administer the immunizations to area children in Karachi and the northwest city of Peshawar.
Although there were additional attacks, the Pakistani government vowed to continue the vaccination campaign — and eradicate the disease — even if there is bloodshed.
"We're committed to this program," said Altaf Boson, who is the national coordinator for monitoring Pakistan's polio vaccination program. "We don't know who is doing this exactly, but we won't let them sabotage what we are doing."
A conference on the polio vaccination program in Pakistan opened Wednesday at a big hotel in Islamabad, and as originally envisioned, it would have been an opportunity to applaud progress. After seeing more than 198 cases of polio in Pakistan last year, this year's total is shaping up to be just 57 cases. But instead, there was a definite pall over the room because of the news of the six health workers' deaths.
"This is such a noble cause for everybody, we never imagined this kind of violent incident," said Boson. "We still don't know the real cause of the killing. Local police are investigating."
Of course, there are suspicions.
The four women who were killed in Karachi were gunned down in Pashtun neighborhoods, where members of the Pakistani Taliban are thought to be hiding. The Taliban have made no secret of their dislike of Western vaccine programs. They maintain that the vaccines are a secret plot against Muslims and that the immunizations render children infertile. The CIA's use of an immunization program to spy on Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad only added to the wariness.
Tuesday's health worker shootings were highly coordinated. They all happened within an hour of each other — targeting volunteers who were going house to house. Witnesses said masked gunmen on motorcycles opened fire in three different neighborhoods in Karachi. A similar story unfolded in Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan. There, a 17-year-old female student volunteer and a male health worker were killed by masked gunmen.
Another vaccination supervisor and her driver were reportedly killed in Peshawar on Wednesday morning, according to local news reports.
"It is really a shock in a society like Pakistan where women are usually not targeted," said Dr. Malik, a doctor who used to run polio vaccine programs for the government but asked that only his last name be used so he could be more candid. "Targeting the women is the biggest shock to me. Are we now moving in a direction that now the women will be killed, we'll see the killing of soft targets?"
He is doubly concerned because of how vital women are to the vaccine program. "If the female workers are going to be targeted, it is going to have definite repercussions on the program in the long run," Malik said.
That's because women make up about 80 percent of the 90,000 health workers trained to administer the oral vaccine that prevents polio. They are needed to go into houses and talk to women — something that, culturally, men can't do. Malik said that if female health workers felt their lives were in danger, they might not participate. Dr. Boson, the coordinator of Pakistan's polio vaccine program, said as regrettable as the killings are, the government will not be deterred.
"They can't sabotage this activity; we are very committed to this effort," he said.
After the polio conference in Islamabad opened, there was news of more attacks Wednesday against health workers, including the attack on the vaccination supervisor and her driver. Wednesday was supposed to be the last day in this three-day vaccination program. It is unclear when the next round will be. The government of Sindh province, where Karachi is located, has suspended the vaccine program until further notice.