PESHAWAR/CHARSADDA: The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef on Wednesday suspended polio operations in Pakistan and called back their field workers due to security threats after the killing of two more people associated with the anti-polio drive in Charsadda district and simultaneous attacks on polio teams in Peshawar and Nowshera.
Two more anti-polio workers were shot dead and one was critically wounded in five coordinated attacks in Peshawar, Charsadda and Nowshera districts on Wednesday to raise the death toll of polio vaccinators to eight in the country in less than 30 hours. Five vaccinators, including four females, were killed in Karachi while a young girl was killed in Peshawar on Tuesday.
Senior WHO officials felt the remaining polio workers would have remained safe had the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government accepted their recommendation to suspend the ongoing three-day anti-polio campaign in the province after the killing of polio vaccinator Farzana Bibi in Peshawar on Tuesday.
The WHO had recommended to the KP government to postpone the anti-polio drive due to the deteriorating security situation and growing threats to the vaccinators.
On WHO’s recommendation, the government cancelled the vaccination campaign in Sindh and in Quetta, Pishin and Qilla Abdullah districts in Balochistan, but the KP governmentturned down its proposal and decided to continue the campaign. It also made commitment to ensure security of the polio teams.
The attacks on Wednesday began in Shero Jhangi area on Charsadda Road in the provincial capital when armed motorcyclists opened fire on a team of anti-polio vaccinators. A male volunteer, Hilal, sustained critical bullet injuries in the attack and was rushed to the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) in Peshawar where he was operated upon. Doctors said his condition was critical.
Almost at the same time, a team of anti-polio vaccinators was attacked in Behram Killay in Nowshera, while another team was assaulted in Garhi Zardad in Charsadda.Despite the attacks, the officials of the KP Health Department announced that the campaign would continue.
A couple of hours later, polio supervisor Zakia Begum and driver Ayaz were shot dead when they were on the way to Tarkha village in the limits of Battagram Police Station in Shabqadar area in Charsadda.
Police said that earlier two lady polio workers, identified as Ayesha and Tahira, were proceeding to take part in the anti-polio drive when unidentified motorcyclists opened fire on them on Nowshera Road in Dheri Zardad in the limits of Nisatta Police Station.
The two women remained unharmed in the ambush. The attackers riding a motorcycle escaped from the scene. In the third incident in Charsadda, two masked men intercepted two lady polio workers in Sheikhu Union Council when they were on the way to carry out vaccination.
The gunmen threatened both the workers not to participate in the drive or else they would suffer the same fate that one Farzana Bibi had faced in Peshawar and four females had met in Karachi.
Charsadda District Coordination Officer (DCO) Syed Zafar Ali Shah said the anti-polio campaign had been halted after the attacks.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain on Tuesday had tried to hush up the matter, saying on the floor of the provincial assembly that the girl killed in Peshawar had nothing to do with anti-polio campaign as her family had some personal enmity.
The police also tried to divert the attention of the media by raiding the house of her fiancé Farooq, and arresting his father from Hazarkhwani village near Peshawar on Tuesday. Farzana, along with her sister, Amna, was on her way to administer anti-polio drops to the children when she was attacked in Tirayee Payan village on Tuesday.
Some polio workers criticised the KP government and police for not taking Tuesday’s attacks seriously that resulted in the death of two more people.A source said that the WHO and Unicef officials took up the matter with the federal government and demanded proper security for the anti-polio teams.
Meanwhile, the WHO and Unicef in a joint statement together with the government and their Pakistani partners condemned the multiple attacks on polio workers and termed those killed and injured, many of whom women, as among hundreds of thousands of heroes who work selflessly to eradicate polio and provide health services to children in Pakistan.
“Such attacks deprive children in Pakistan of their right to basic life-saving health interventions and place them at risk for a disease that causes lifelong disability,” the statement said. It said that in light of the prevailing security situation, WHO and Unicef Pakistan would implement additional security protocols to ensure the safety and security of their polio workers.
“The WHO and Unicef and all our partners in Pakistan express our deepest sympathy to the families of the health workers who were killed or injured. We remain committed to supporting the government and the people of Pakistan in their efforts to rid the country of polio,” the statement added.
Senior WHO and Unicef officials said the WHO had called back its 1,080 technical and supervisory staff while Unicef recalled its 1,120 COMnet staff and suspended field polio operations.
Senior officials of the KP Health Department said the anti-polio campaign was unofficially suspended across the province after two polio vaccinators were killed and another was critically injured, followed by coordinated attacks on other teams in Charsadda and Nowshera districts on Wednesday.
In Mardan district, which is hometown of Chief Minister Ameer Haider Hoti, government officials said polio teams were mishandled and denied access to children and the campaign was finally suspended in the entire district.
In Mohib Banda village, close to Mardan city, around 500 families refused to administer polio drops to their children due to the malicious propaganda by a local cleric, and in Parkho, Shergarh and Bat Baba areas in Takht Bhai tehsil, the polio teams, according to officials, were mistreated and denied access to children to give them oral vaccines.
Provincial Information Minister Mian Iftikhar Hussain termed all the attacks on polio teams as acts of the ‘terrorists’ who were trying to tarnish Pakistan’s image.
He said the KP government did not postpone the anti-polio drive earlier as it did not believe killing polio vaccinator Farzana Bibi was part of terrorism unleashed by terrorists. “We are convinced now that all these attacks, including the killing of Farzana, were carried our by the terrorists. The terrorists were already opposing polio vaccination but they started opposing the anti-polio drive after the assassination of Osama bin Laden,” Mian Iftikhar said.
He said the KP government has announced Rs300,000 compensation for every polio worker killed during the recent campaign, Rs80,000 for seriously injured person and Rs50,000 for those suffering minor injuries.
“The terrorists were first against education and blew up schools, but now they want that the people should not get health facilities. Their agenda is to paralyse the nation by preventing the children from being immunised against polio,” the minister said.
He feared thousands of Pakistanis working abroad would lose jobs and Pakistan would stand isolated if it did not overcome the poliovirus.
Meanwhile, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan phoned this correspondent and once again distanced his organisation from the attacks on polio teams. The previous day also he had denied the involvement of the TTP in the attacks on the anti-polio workers.