Karin Hulshof, UNICEF regional director for South Asia based in Kathmandu, was in tears on Wednesday afternoon.
“I just heard, they’ve shot six polio vaccinators in Karachi. Some were teenagers, some were young mothers... all of them working hard to help people and save lives.”
The six were among nine health workers shot dead while they were vaccinating children against polio, a disease that cripples, paralyses and kills children, often within hours.
Six of those gunned down were women, three were teenagers, who usually work free as volunteers. One was a schoolgirl.
Millions of children lose a chance to live each time a polio worker is shot dead. The volunteers were part in a three-day government-led drive, supported by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, to vaccinate and protect Pakistan’s 34 million children from the killer disease.
The attacks took place over 48 hours in several locations in Pakistan — Gadap, Landi, Baldia and Orangi towns of Karachi city, Sindh and Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.
Safety concerns prompted UNICEF and the World Health Organisation to temporarily suspend the UN-backed vaccination campaign, but volunteers resumed vaccination under police escort.
Despite that, fear kept many away, resulting in more than 3.5 million Pakistani children missing out on polio vaccination this week. Out of a target of 18.5 million, only 14.9 million children were vaccinated.
Pakistan is one of three countries — Afghanistan and Nigeria, being the other two — in the world where the wild polio virus continues to thrive, which means newborns and little children in these countries live with the continuous risk of paralysis and death. Infections in the nation shot up from a low of 28 in 2005 to 189 last year.
There were a few attacks on polio workers in July, but the current level of violence is unprecedented. Efforts to tackle polio in Pakistan have been hampered over the years because of rumours about the vaccine making children infertile.
Lately, Pakistan Taliban has turned against polio workers, accusing them of espionage following reports that CIA plotted a fake vaccination programme to enter Osama bin Laden’s house in Abottabad to confirm his presence in Pakistan.
In June this year, the Taliban banned vaccinations in the northwestern tribal area of Waziristan, condemning the drive as a cover for spying on the locals.
It has, however, denied having anything to do with this week’s killings. Stamping out polio from every corner of the world is the only way to keep every child safe.
Failure to eradicate polio would lead eventually to at least 2 lakh children paralysed or dead worldwide every year, and as recent outbreaks in polio-free areas such as China and Tajikistan have shown that polio can, increasingly, also paralyse and kill adults.
Since the launch of the UN-backed Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, polio cases have dropped by 99%-from 3.5 lakh children paralysed or killed annually in 125 countries in 1988 to 620 cases in 16 countries in 2011.
India reported it’s last polio case — in a two-year-old girl in Panchla block of Howrah, West Bengal — on January 13, 2011.
What made it possible was the sheer hard work of volunteers — like those shot dead in Pakistan — who brought polio down to one in 2011 from 741 in 2009’ when India topped the world’s polio charts, reporting almost half (46%) of the global total of 1,604 cases.
As someone who has travelled with polio workers across fields and rivulets to unreachable hamlets in the Kosi river-belt in Bihar that remain isolated from the world because of floods six months in a year, I know that reaching every child under 5 years is far tougher than it looks on government records.
Polio workers bus, cycle, walk and use boats to reach thatch huts to persuade mothers to agree to their children take the life-saving drops.
All they want is a polio-free world, and it is a colossal tragedy that we cannot protect them from the rumours and gunshots of politics and ignorance.
Sanchita Sharma is the health editor