At least eight health workers in two Pakistani provinces were shot dead in separate but reportedly coordinated attacks that have dealt yet another blow to the country’s polio eradication campaign.
The first of the attacks led by gunmen occurred Dec. 18 in several neighborhoods in the cities of Karachi in Sindh and Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. More targeted attacks were reported Dec. 19. All of the victims were participating in anti-polio vaccination campaigns at the time of the attacks, The New York Times reports.
Pakistani officials said investigations are ongoing to determine who was responsible for the attacks. Many suspect the Taliban, which have previously banned vaccination campaigns in their strongholds. The group has also accused the U.S. government of using the campaigns to disguise espionage activities.
In the meantime, Pakistan has suspended vaccination programs in the two provinces and government officials recognized the need for “more and better arrangements for security” of health workers. The United Nations has also removed all staff members engaged in the polio drive from the streets, according to Reuters.
This is not the first time health workers involved in polio campaigns in Pakistan were targeted. Two World Health Organization staff members were shot in Karachi in July. Both recovered after undergoing surgery. A local community health worker, however, was not as fortunate and died after getting shot three days after, in the same city.
Members of the international community once again condemned this latest incident. In a joint statement, UNICEF and WHO urged Pakistan and everyone concerned to “do their utmost to protect health workers and create a secure environment” in the country, which remains one of three countries where polio is still endemic.
The United States, meanwhile, responded to suggestions it has helped create distrust among health workers in Pakistan, noting that “nothing justifies violence against health workers.”
“Any attack on health workers anywhere in the world is unacceptable,” U.S. Department of State spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing Tuesday.
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