Karachi, Pakistan – Three more polio workers were shot in Pakistan Wednesday, with two killed. The shootings are the latest in a string of attacks over the past three days that has halted the UN-backed polio eradication campaign and claimed eight lives total.
According to Reuters, the UN has pulled all staff involved in the polio campaign off the streets. Immunization continues outside of UN support in some areas, though many workers refused to go out in response to the unprecedented violence. Female health workers held protests in Karachi and Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
“We go out and risk our lives to save other people’s children from being permanently handicapped, for what? So that our own children become orphans?” health worker Ambreen Bibi said at the Islamabad protest.
The government was largely caught off guard by the attacks, since the polio eradication campaign has been largely relegated to major cities away from Taliban strongholds.
“We didn’t expect such attacks in Karachi,” said minister of human rights Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who has been overseeing the polio campaign.
Six other polio workers have been killed this week, and while no individual or group has claimed responsibility, Islamic extremists say that the polio eradication campaign is a cover-up for espionage, reports The Associated Press.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the killings as “cruel, senseless and inexcusable.” He said that the eight workers were among many in Pakistan who were “working selflessly to achieve the historic goal of polio eradication.”
“This is undoubtedly a tragic setback, but the campaign to eradicate polio will and must continue,” said Sarah Crowe, spokeswoman for UNICEF.
The polio eradication campaign has destroyed the disease from everywhere except Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Polio can paralyze or even kill within hours of first infection. It is transmitted person-to-person, meaning that if even one person is infected, the disease can be passed on to others.