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5 female teachers killed: Pakistan aid work imperiled

The daylight killing of the five teachers and two health workers stokes worries that public health campaigns will suffer and lead to a resurgence of diseases like polio.

By Correspondent / January 2, 2013

Pakistani relatives and mourners pray next to the body of aid worker Lubna Mahmoud, who was killed on Tuesday by gunmen, during her funeral procession in Swabi, Pakistan, Wednesday, Jan. 2.

Mohammad Sajjad/AP

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Islamabad, Pakistan

Pakistani police on Wednesday searched for the gunmen behind the brazen murder of five teachers and two health workers, amid fears that public health campaigns would suffer and lead to a resurgence of polio and other preventable diseases. 

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There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which occurred Tuesday in Swabi, a city in the troubled northwest. The Pakistani Taliban has in the past vowed to target, among others, health workers involved in campaigns to wipe out polio.

Last year, 15 health and aid workers were killed in Pakistan, making the country one of the most dangerous in the world for aid workers, according to the British-based consultancy Humanitarian Outcomes. Most were women. Development sector experts now express concerns that those working on the ground will shy away from assignments. 

“In the past, local volunteers, be they teachers, medical workers or social mobilizers, considered themselves safe and worked hand in hand with foreign aid workers and paramilitary personnel in even the most dire of circumstances,” says Hassan Belal Zaidi, a development and communication specialist, based in Islamabad. “But now, it would not be unreasonable for them to think twice and even refuse to travel to remote parts of the country if they know there is a chance they may get shot.”

The six women and one man were traveling in a van when gunmen on motorcycles stopped it Tuesday afternoon after it left a children's community center, according to Abdur Rasheed Khan, chief of the Swabi police force. The four gunmen took a 4-year-old boy belonging to one of the women from the van, and then raked the vehicle with gunfire, he said. The child was unharmed and was later turned over to police by bystanders, he said.

These murders come a few weeks after nine health workers with national polio campaign were killed in different parts of the country in what police said was a coordinated attack. That prompted the Pakistani government and the United Nations agencies to suspend their vaccination drive for the disease, which has seen a uptick in cases in recent years.

Pakistan is one out of the three countries where polio persists; at least 57 cases were registered in 2012. The World Health Organization last year warned Pakistan that it could face travel and visa restrictions and sanctions imposed by other countries if polio continues to spread.

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