Pakistan bomb blast: why health workers keep getting attacked

The bomb blast that killed two and injured 20 near a health clinic was the latest effort targeting workers involved in anti-polio vaccination efforts. Will polio see a resurgence after years of declining numbers?

Mohammad Sajjad/AP
Pakistani police officers gather at the site of a bombing in Peshawar, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. The bomb exploded next to a van carrying security officials who were supposed to protect workers giving out anti-polio vaccinations on Monday, said Pakistani officials.

A bomb exploded outside a health clinic in the troubled northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar Monday, news reports said, killing two people in an attack that appeared to be the latest to target anti-polio vaccination efforts.

The bombing, which also injured 20, bodes ill for efforts to wipe out polio in Pakistan, which two years ago had the highest number of confirmed cases in the world, at 198.

Last year, thanks to aggressive vaccination and publicity campaigns, that number dropped to 58, hailed by many experts as an unmitigated success against the crippling disease that has all but been eradicated in the West. The World Health Organization had warned Pakistan that it could face travel and visa restrictions and sanctions imposed by other countries if polio continues to spread.

As of the beginning of October, Pakistan has reported 36 cases, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, with eight new cases recorded last week alone, mainly in Federally Administered Tribal Areas, of which Peshawar is the administrative centre and economic hub.

News reports said the bomb hit a van outside the clinic. The van was carrying security workers accompanying health workers administering polio vaccines.

Along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is only one of three countries where polio remains endemic. Health experts blame deeply stubborn skepticism about the purposes of the vaccinations, fueled by radical Islamic propaganda, which has alleged the efforts are aimed at reducing Muslim populations.

That skepticism hardened further after the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. The CIA used a Pakistani doctor to confirm the presence of bin Laden under the guise of an immunization program.

Last year, a Taliban commander in northwest Pakistan announced a ban on polio vaccines for children in the region as long as the United States continues its campaign of drone strikes in the region.

A spokesman for one faction of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for Monday’s attacks.

More than 20 workers directly or indirectly tied to the anti-polio effort have been killed since 2011, according to various estimates.

Last month, Pakistan’s embattled prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, reaffirmed his government’s commitment to eradicate polio telling the UN General Assembly: “We have also made eradication of polio in Pakistan a matter of great importance for my government, as we are determined to make Pakistan a polio-free country."

Peshawar has already been at the epicenter of a wave of violence targeting government institutions throughout Pakistan.  A car bomb Sept. 29 killed 42 people in Peshawar’s ancient market, a week after an attack by a Taliban faction on the city’s Anglican church killed about 80 people, and two days after a bus bomb killed at least 17 city government employees. 

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