Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Health Workers Targeted, Vaccines Suspended

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Health Workers Targeted, Vaccines Suspended

Article excerpt

ISLAMABAD -- Gunmen on Tuesday shot dead five female health workers who were immunizing children against polio, causing the Pakistani government to suspend vaccinations in two cities and dealing a fresh setback to an eradication campaign dogged by Taliban resistance in a country that is one of the disease's last global strongholds.

"It is a blow, no doubt," said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, an adviser on polio to Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz 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 claimed that the United States is using the program as a cover for espionage.

The killings were a serious reversal for the multibillion-dollar global polio immunization effort, which over the past quarter- century has reduced the number of endemic nations from 120 to just three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Nonetheless, U.N. officials insisted that the drive would be revived after a period for investigation and regrouping, as it had been after previous attacks on vaccinators here, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Pakistan has made solid gains against polio this year, with 56 new recorded cases of the diseases in 2012, compared with 192 at the same point last year, according to the government. Worldwide, cases of death and paralysis from polio have been reduced to less than 1,000 last year, from 350,000 worldwide in 1988.

But the campaign here has been deeply shaken by Taliban threats and intimidation, though several officials Tuesday said they had never seen such a focused and deadly attack before.

Insurgents have long been suspicious of polio vaccinators, seeing them as potential spies. But that greatly intensified after the U.S. CIA used a vaccination team headed by a local doctor, Shakil Afridi, to visit Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, reportedly in an attempt to obtain DNA proof that the bin Laden family was there before launching its U. …

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