Threats, attacks hurt Pakistan's polio vaccination push

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Jul 17, 2012 (CIDRAP News) – Gunmen in Karachi, Pakistan, today opened fire on a doctor from Ghana working on a polio vaccination campaign and his Pakistani driver, putting both in the hospital, according to an Al Jazeera report.

The shooting occurred in a low-income neighborhood that houses many Afghan refugees and migrants, and police said the shooters were two Afghan men. Local police official Mohammed Sultan told the news service that the shooting could be related to the polio vaccination campaign, which he said has faced some resistance among local residents. He said the doctor had been working in the area for about 3 months.

Taliban leaders in northwestern Pakistan have banned polio vaccination campaigns to protest US drone strikes and condemned the vaccination efforts after a Pakistani doctor helped the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) find Osama bin Laden by using a hepatitis vaccination program as a cover, according to the report. Some global health officials have said the vaccine ruse damaged the credibility and future impact of polio and other vital vaccine and public health campaigns, particularly in politically sensitive areas.

The World Health Organization (WHO) today issued a statement describing the two injured men as a WHO staff member and an international consultant who were supporting polio National Immunization Days. It said so far there is no evidence to suggest that the attack specifically targeted polio eradication efforts or the WHO.

The agency said it was grateful to Pakistani officials for launching an investigation of the attack and to medical teams for the "rapid and high-quality" aid they provided.

"Incidents like these highlight the incredible bravery of the more than 200,000 mainly Pakistani volunteers who run every vaccination campaign. The vaccinators, social mobilizers and frontline staff are the heroes of this campaign," the WHO said.

The doctor and driver are in stable condition, Al Jazeera reported. They had been riding in an unmarked white pickup truck. A health expert told Agence France-Presse that the attack is the latest in a string of attacks against polio workers in Pakistan, including the beating yesterday of workers in Islamabad and shots fired at a team in the southern town of Ziarat, according to the story.

The expert, who asked to remain anonymous, told the news service that the situation is alarming, because the government and aid agencies don't have a strategy to address it.

Polio immunization has been challenging in some predominantly Muslim countries, because in some instances religious leaders have said the vaccines are against Islam and have voiced suspicion about vaccine ingredients. The latest incident comes at a time when health leaders have made some headway in enlisting the help of religious leaders and scholars in urging parents to have their children vaccinated.

For example, in October 2011, two scholars held a press conference in Pakistan to say the vaccine contains nothing that runs counter to Islam and that refusing the vaccine puts children at risk for polio-linked paralysis. In May, a group of 22 top Muslim scholars from around the world—including Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria—endorsed polio eradication efforts.

Global health officials are trying to intensify polio vaccination efforts in three countries where the disease is still endemic: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. In May the World Health Assembly passed a resolution declaring polio eradication a "programmatic emergency for global public health," and health groups launched an emergency plan for pushing the disease out of its final three strongholds.

In a related development, a WHO official said today that the Taliban's ban on polio vaccination could block the immunization of about 280,000 children in the tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan, CNN reported.

Yesterday, Pakistani health officials launched a 3-day campaign to vaccinate 6.1 million children in conflict-ridden tribal regions and other affected areas, according to media reports. The campaign is targeting the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which have reported polio cases this year, and other parts of the country.

See also:

Jul 17 Al Jazeera story

Jul 17 WHO statement

Oct 17, 2011, CIDRAP News Scan "Pakistan's religious leaders urge polio vaccination"

May 30 CIDRAP News Scan "Muslim leaders endorse polio eradication efforts"

May 29 CIDRAP News story "WHA wraps up with IHR, virus-sharing updates"

Jul 17 CNN story

Jul 16 CIDRAP News item on Pakistan vaccination drive

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