Five women vaccinators were killed and a couple of their male colleagues were injured on Tuesday in dastardly and apparently coordinated gun attacks within a short span of time in Karachi and Peshawar, compelling the Sindh health authorities to immediately suspend a three-day polio eradication campaign in the province.
Four workers were killed in Karachi’s different Pakhtun-dominated areas where a day earlier a young volunteer associated with the campaign had been gunned down.
The shootings came as a grim reminder of the July attacks in the city that had left a local paramedic associated with a polio vaccination drive dead and a World Health Organisation (WHO) doctor, Fosten Dido, from Ghana, and his driver wounded in Sohrab Goth.
Karachi East DIG Shahid Hayat told Dawn that police had not been informed beforehand about the campaign although an
agreement had been reached with health officials for protection during such campaigns in areas considered to be sensitive.
Sindh government sources said the health department would review the situation on Wednesday.
In Karachi, the attacks took place in Landhi, Orangi Town and Baldia Town.
In Orangi Town’s Toori Bangash Colony, Naseem Akhtar and Mohammad Israr were shot when they were going door to door to administer polio drops, Karachi West DIG Javed Odho said.
Shortly afterwards, Kaneez Fatima and Rashid Khan were attacked in Mohammad Khan Colony in Ittehad Town.
They were taken to hospital where the women were pronounced dead.
“The two places are hardly a kilometre from each other and there is a possibility that the attackers were the same,” the DIG said.
Earlier, two women polio immunisation workers were shot dead in Gulshan-i-Bunair area of Landhi.
“Madeeha, 20, and Fehmeeda, 40, were killed in the attack,” Karachi East DIG Shahid Hayat said. They lived in the same area.
About two months ago, police had accompanied the health workers during a similar anti-polio campaign in the area.
Police carried out a search operation in Gulshan-i-Bunair, rounded up several suspects and seized arms and ammunition.
Sindh police spokesman SSP Imran Shaukat said that none of the teams that had come under attack had informed police about the campaign, although directives had been issued to DIGs, SSPs and SHOs to provide security when contacted for help.
In Peshawar, a woman worker administering the vaccine in Mathra village adjoining the city was killed.
However, the administration decided to carry on the campaign.
The victim, Amna, 18, belonged to Sarai Payan village.
Her sister Farzana, 14, told police that both of them were about to enter a house to administer vaccine to children when two men on a motorcycle shot Amna.
“My sister fell on the ground and I started crying for help. Local people gathered and arranged a vehicle for taking her to hospital,” she said.
Peshawar Rural Circle SP Javaid Khan said police had obtained some information which might lead them to the attackers.
District Coordination Officer Mohammad Javaid Khan Marwat said the WHO had suggested halting the anti-polio campaign but the administration had decided to continue it.
“No doubt there are some union councils where access to all children may not have been possible so far but we have completed about 75 per cent of the process and we want to meet the target at all costs,” he said.
The DCO said it would be irrational to deploy security personnel for vaccination because it was public welfare work and the community itself should accomplish the noble task and save the new generation from the fatal disease.
He said Shaikhan, Mathra, Adezai and other localities closed to the Khyber Agency needed attention and soon the workers would be able to reach every child.
The official said he was in close contact with relevant officials and local elders to overcome the problems.
Meanwhile, Sindh Health Minister Dr Sagheer Ahmad said the supplementary oral polio drop administration campaign had been stopped in the province for the sake of workers’ protection.
During the campaign launched on Monday, 4.43 million children were to be covered by about 12,000 mobile and stationed teams and over 1,000 transient point teams in three days.
The campaign was launched in all the earmarked union councils of Karachi on Monday, but vaccinators were asked on Tuesday morning not to move in UCs 4 and 5 Of Gadap as a matter of precaution following the killing of a WHO-hired anti-polio worker,
Omer Farooq, the previous evening.
The volunteers, workers and supervisors were already terrified, but were working in other localities of Gadap.
Baldia Town Health Officer Dr Arif Niaz, who had faced anti-social elements during the campaign, said a volunteer killed on Tuesday was to be married soon. “Her killing has shocked the workers,” he said.
The official said it would now become very difficult to get new women volunteers for the campaigns.
He said the entire lot of anti-polio activists was mentally disturbed and he did not think their activities would resume anytime soon.
Orangi THO Dr Shafiq Ahmad said the campaign had been going on peacefully before Naseem, 40, was killed in UC 7 and the incident was a big blow to the fight against polio.
He said the workers would need considerable time to overcome the trauma.
Sources in the KMC health department said some THOs had been raising the issues of inadequate security and threats over the past months.
The Sindh chapter of Pakistan Medical Association demanded punishment for the killers and compensation for the victims’ families.
About 1.3m deserving children in Karachi were to be covered by 3,400 mobile teams during the campaign.
Our Reporter in Islamabad adds: Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf condemned the killing of six health workers by terrorists and ordered the interior ministry to provide foolproof security to polio vaccination teams.
Presiding over a meeting of the Polio Task Force held to take stock of measures taken to eradicate the disease, he expressed shock and grief over the death of women workers.
The prime minister said a polio-free Pakistan was a cherished goal of the government. “This is the least we owe to our children and we will stay on the course until polio is wiped out of the country.”