Taliban Murders Six Immunizers in Wake of CIA Polio Ruse

(This post has been updated. Read to the end.)

There is news today, confirmed by several media outlets and also by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, that six people working as polio vaccinators were murdered in three separate coordinated attacks in Pakistan. While no one has yet claimed responsibility, it is widely assumed that the attackers have ties to the Taliban, which has opposed the polio-vaccination campaign as a Western plot and accused vaccinators of working as spies for the CIA.

This is grievous and appalling. Infuriatingly, it was also predictable. Constant readers will remember that, back in 2011, the CIA did use a vaccination campaign as a ruse to attempt to to find Osama bin Laden. The unsuccessful attempt was denounced all over the world for putting the polio campaign at risk, and news sources within Pakistan quickly began reporting that vaccinators were feeling threatened. Adding to the sense of threat, a Taliban commander blocked the campaign in one province last June, a United Nations doctor and his driver were fired on in July, and a vaccinator was executed in October by a man who roared up on a motorbike and dashed away.

Today’s news, as reported by Agence France Presse:

KARACHI — Gunmen in Pakistan have killed six health workers at the start of a nationwide polio vaccination drive, officials said Tuesday, highlighting resistance to a campaign opposed by the Taliban.

Four women were killed in less than an hour in seemingly coordinated attacks in Karachi on Tuesday, a day after a man working on a local government-World Health Organization (WHO) project was also shot dead in the city, police said.

A sixth worker, also a woman, was killed on Tuesday in the northwestern city of Peshawar, which lies close to the tribal areas, a haven for the Taliban and other militants who ordered a ban on polio vaccinations in June.

At the Guardian, Sarah Boseley correctly observes:

Six months ago, the independent monitoring board that oversees the polio campaign was talking of a “global emergency”. The eradication effort was faltering in three countries, it said: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The deaths of five women involved in the vaccination drive in Pakistan takes the emergency to quite another level. It is a disaster. Mass immunisation campaigns in developing countries depend on the regular mobilisation of many thousands of volunteers – some of them health workers, some community activists and some who come along out of goodwill or a small incentive payment. Few will turn out if they fear for their lives.

Pakistan is one of the three remaining countries, along with Nigeria and Afghanistan, where polio continues to circulate. Its campaign has been going well: Right now it has one-third the new cases that it did this time last year. The Independent Monitoring Board of the eradication initiative (which Sarah references in her story quoted above) said as recently as October:

Pakistan’s chances of stopping polio have been transformed over the last year. Its Programme reorientated and case numbers plummeted in 2012 as a result. But an election looms, which could distract government at every level and allow the virus to resurge. This, and a complex security situation, are the major risks in Pakistan in 2013.

These tragic and avoidable murders could reverse that trend — which would risk making Pakistan, with its large diaspora and steady out-migration, a place that reinfects the rest of the world.

All political events are multi-factorial of course. The Taliban are reflexively opposed to the West, and may have been enraged that the majority of these vaccinators were women, whom they seek to expel from public life. But as a global health reporter, I cannot see how the CIA can escape some responsibility for these deaths, and for the discouragement and confusion that is certain to follow.

(Update, Dec. 19: In another round of attacks, three additional polio workers were targeted and two were killed, for eight total in less than three days. In response, the UN pulled all its staff off the streets, and the vaccination campaign was effectively suspended because workers refused to go out. Reuters has the details.)

For my earlier stories on this, see:

Image: Emile Zola’s front-page letter accusing the President of France of anti-Semitism and false testimony in convicting Alfred Dreyfus, Jan. 13, 1898. Via BarNoneGroup.


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