NPR

Risk For Pakistan's Polio Workers Escalates

The death toll of Pakistan's polio workers shot while trying to administer vaccines to needy children now stands at nine. The Taliban hasn't claimed responsibility and Pakistan is investigating. The United Nations has said it has pulled its field workers, but the Pakistan government says it will continue the program without them. The government has sent workers out under armed guard and suspended the program only in Sindh province and there is some talk of moving vaccinations into hospitals in some districts.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

This last week in Pakistan, Muslim extremists killed nine health workers who were trying to administer polio vaccines to poor children. Most of the victims rather were women working for the United Nations-backed program. The attack has shocked Pakistani around the country. The Pakistani government said it would not be bullied by extremists inside the country and vow to continue its vaccination program.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports from Islamabad.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The shots rang out on Monday in the slums of Karachi, Pakistan's largest city. Masked men on a motorcycle killed two female health workers as they went door-to-door administering polio vaccines. Those murders were quickly followed by seven more. Within an hour, an additional two women were shot dead in Karachi and another in Northern Peshawar. By Wednesday, the death toll was nine; seven women and two men.

Dr. Altaf Bosan is in charge of monitoring the national polio campaign for the Pakistani government and he said the killings were unexpected.

DR. ALTAF BOSAN: We are very much surprised. I don't know why it has happened.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This has been so surprising because the government has had vaccination programs before and they have never sparked such violence. The workers' deaths made the front page of all the major newspapers here. On Wednesday, the U.N. said the safety situation was so out of control it was forced to pull its workers from the field.

Bosan said the Pakistani government would go it alone.

BOSAN: Our aim is to reach every child everywhere which is available in-country. We will not be the last country to eradicate what we will try to eradicate as soon as possible.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Eradicate, he said. He means Pakistan will not be the last country to eradicate polio. Pakistan is in a race of sorts. It is one of three countries in the world where polio has not been wiped out. The other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria. Last year, there were nearly 200 cases of polio in Pakistan - mostly in the slums of Karachi, the tribal regions and Baluchistan. This year the number is a bit less than 60, so the killings have been a setback..

Extremists in Pakistan have come up against the vaccinations, saying it's part of a broader plot to against Muslims. They claim the vaccines actually sterilize Muslim children. And they accuse health workers of being spies.

DR. MALIK: It doesn't relate to spying.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Dr. Malik used to run vaccination programs for the Pakistani government. He asked that we only use his last name so he could be more candid.

MALIK: The questions being asked during the household interview is how many children do you have? They are not asking about the others.

TEMPLE-RASTON: In other words, the health workers aren't asking where people are from or what their religion or tribe are. All the focus is on the children.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks. But there are some clues. The workers in Karachi were gun downed in Pashtun neighborhoods where the Pakistani Taliban are thought to be hiding. And the shootings up north were in tribal lands where the Pakistani Taliban also have a presence. Analysts say that the Taliban are not claiming responsibility because they want to avoid a backlash.

Thirty-six-year old Malik Tabassum is from Islamabad. And he says the government should send the workers out with guards.

MALIK TABASSUM: (Foreign language spoken)

TEMPLE-RASTON: The government should provide them with security, he said. Then they can do their work.

The Pakistani government has already planned another vaccination campaign for mid-January. The reason for the rush is because officials are trying to vaccinate during the dry season, which is over in three months. This is the time of year when the polio virus spreads less effectively and when health officials have the best chance of stamping it out.

The U.N., for its part, has already said it would support the January campaign - it just hasn't said how.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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