Gunmen have attacked a polio vaccination team in northwest Pakistan, killing a health worker and two policemen – the latest deaths in a dangerous campaign to eradicate the disease.
The attackers riding motorcycles opened fire on Tuesday during a door-to-door inoculation campaign in North Waziristan, a district in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The victims were taking part in a United Nations-funded campaign that started on Monday in regions at high risk for outbreaks, local administrator Shahid Ali Khan said. The campaign aims to inoculate more than 12.6 million children.
A passer-by was also wounded in the attack, said Aziz Ullah, a local police official. The attackers fled the scene.
Violence in the mountainous border regions of Pakistan has been on the rise since the Taliban took back power last year in Afghanistan, with Pakistani security officials often being the target.
Pakistan is one of two countries, alongside Afghanistan, where polio remains endemic, but where vaccination teams have been targeted by armed attackers. Many polio workers and security officials guarding them have been killed in such attacks since 2012.
The opposition to all forms of inoculation grew in Pakistan after the CIA organised a fake vaccination drive to help track down al-Qaeda’s former leader Osama Bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad. Bin Laden was killed during a US military operation in that city in 2011.
Efforts to eradicate polio have also been hampered by conspiracy theories spread by religious groups, which claim the vaccination programmes are part of a Western conspiracy to sterilise children or that vaccines contain pig fat and are therefore banned for Muslims.
In 2021, Pakistan reported only one case, raising hopes it was close to eradicating polio. In April this year, however, it reported the first case of the debilitating neurodegenerative disease in 15 months.
Since April, Pakistan has registered 11 new polio cases – all in North Waziristan, where parents often refuse to inoculate children. The outbreak has been a a blow to the country’s efforts to eradicate the disease, which can cause severe paralysis in children.
Before this week, Pakistan’s health authorities had carried out three nationwide anti-polio drives this year – in January, March and in May.
During the March campaign, gunmen in northwestern Pakistan shot and killed a female polio worker as she was returning home after a day of vaccinations.
And in January, gunmen shot and killed a police officer providing security for polio vaccination workers, also in the country’s northwest.