Continuing a militant campaign of violence against aid workers in Pakistan, gunmen on Tuesday shot dead seven Pakistani teachers and health workers, six of them women, police officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the shooting, in the Swabi district of the northwestern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, fit a pattern of attacks against charity and aid workers across the country in recent weeks that officials have attributed to the Pakistani Taliban. The militant offensive has brought a wave of international outrage, particularly because it has focused on vaccination and health workers in a country where polio and measles have made troubling gains.
The attack on Tuesday, near the village of Sher Afzal Banda, was conducted by two men on a motorcycle who followed a van taking the workers home and then opened fire on it with assault rifles, the police said. The victims worked for the private Pakistani aid group Support With Working Solution, which works in the health and education sectors.
“They opened fire and killed six females and one male,” Javed Akhtar, the group’s executive director, said in a telephone interview. “One child, aged 7 to 8 years, miraculously survived.”
This is not a first, last month, at least nine Pakistani volunteers in an internationally supported polio vaccination drive were killed by militants across the country. These people were not foreigners, but locals involved in a health campaign tasked with going door-to-door with vaccines in some of the most remote and dangerous parts of Pakistan. Pakistan has active and widespread transmission of polio, and is the only country in Asia with confirmed Wild Polio Virus type 3 (WPV3) transmission, a strain on the verge of eradication.
The net effect is quite simply devastating for these health campaigns. Pakistan is one of the world’s last bastions of the crippling disease Polio, however, as a result of previous murders the drive to give out more than five million anti-polio drops, has been suspended in Karachi by the Pakistani government. This comes at a time when Pakistan has made great strides against polio – last year 190 children contracted polio and this year it is 56. The utter tragedy here is that every day the vaccination drive is on hold, more children lose out.
Pakistan is one of just three countries where the polio virus has stubbornly resisted eradication efforts (Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other two). In 2011, Pakistan led the world with 175 confirmed cases. However, changes to the programme’s management had helped to spark a turnaround. This year Pakistan has recorded just 56 cases, and the virus has been cornered to some segments of the population in just a few regions. Global attention turned to Nigeria, the only country to see a year-on-year rise in polio cases this year.
Heidi Larson, an anthropologist who studies vaccination at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, compared this week’s killings in Pakistan to a 2003 immunisation boycott in northern Nigeria, which was led by religious leaders. The virus rebounded in Nigeria and temporarily spread to other African and Asian countries that had already wiped out polio.
“In the same way that the northern-Nigeria boycott was a game changer, I think this is,” Larson says.
Indeed yes, once you start killing young girls, who is going to volunteer?
So where do we go from here? One thought is an immediate ban on travel …
The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has recommended the imposition of international travel restrictions on every child or adult travelling out of polio-endemic Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria so that they do not carry the risk of polio with them to imperil the hard-earned status of countries that are now free of the crippling virus.
“No country should allow a citizen from any endemic polio state to cross their border without a valid vaccination certificate,”
It is truly hard to even begin to comprehend a belief system that enables you to shoot schoolgirls on their way to school simply because they wanted an education, or murder young girls working as aid workers on health campaigns. You might wonder what is wrong with these people, well we have one word that describes it best …. “evil”.