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Anti-Polio Campaign Suspended in Pakistan After 8 Murders

Anti-polio campaign worker Hilal Khan (C), who was shot and badly injured by unidentified gunmen, is treated at Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, December 19, 2012.
World health officials have suspended a polio vaccination campaign in Pakistan after a series of attacks left eight polio vaccination volunteers dead.

The World Health Organization and the United Nations children's agency halted work on the three-day nationwide vaccination campaign Wednesday.

The decision came after unidentified gunmen opened fire on three vaccination teams scattered across northwestern Pakistan Wednesday. Earlier in the week, attacks in Peshawar and Karachi killed six people and wounded several others. Pakistan's government has condemned the attacks.

Pakistan Polio: WHO

Polio in Pakistan
(source World Health Organization)

  • Pakistan is one of three countries that remains polio-endemic
  • Failure to eradicate polio from these remaining strongholds could result in 200,000 new global cases every year within 10 years
  • Pakistan's nationwide eradication program has existed since 1994, but instability and war hampers efforts
  • Polio is highly infectious and can cause total paralysis and even death
  • The virus mainly affects children under five years of age
UNICEF spokeswoman Sarah Crowe says that they are "deeply saddened" by the deaths and that those killed were local workers.

"They are truly the unsung heroes of the polio eradication campaign, without a doubt. There's no way that we would be able to do anything without them. They are vitally important. And that's why the work must continue," she said.

She says that with their help, Pakistan has seen a 70 percent drop in polio cases this year.

Crowe says the local workers also help to dispel rumors that the vaccination efforts are meant to sterilize Muslims or are dangerous for children.

And while no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Pakistani Taliban have prevented such programs in the past, saying they are a cover for spying.

The Taliban began voicing opposition to Western-backed health programs after a Pakistani doctor was imprisoned for helping U.S. intelligence agents run a fake hepatitis vaccination program aimed at locating then-fugitive al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

In July, armed men killed a Pakistani doctor working for the World Health Organization on a national immunization campaign.

Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only three countries were polio remains endemic.