Pakistan polio vaccine teams on edge after fatal attacks

Pakistani children look at a damaged health centre torched by a mob following rumours of reactions to a polio vaccine, on the outskirts of Peshawar. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD (AFP) - Polio workers across Pakistan were instructed to remain vigilant on Thursday (April 25) after multiple attacks on vaccination teams killed at least three people this week amid an ongoing push to eradicate the disease from the restive country.

The latest victim, a polio worker, was killed in southwestern Balochistan province on Thursday morning following separate attacks targeting health workers in the country's north-west earlier this week that resulted in the deaths of two police officers.

"The attack has taken place in a remote area, and we have received reports that one female polio worker has been killed," district police chief Attaullah Shah told AFP.

Security officials in Pakistan told AFP that authorities have instructed polio teams to remain "vigilant" amid the violence.

The attacks come days after more than 25,000 children were rushed to hospitals in northwestern Pakistan after rumours spread that some had suffered reactions to a polio vaccine.

The panic came as health workers were carrying out a three-day vaccination campaign in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, with authorities saying dozens of polio workers have been beaten or harassed in the wake of the scare.

Ongoing suspicion of the polio vaccine in Pakistan has been compounded recently by anti-vaccination videos circulating on social media.

Islamist opposition to all forms of inoculation grew after the CIA organised a fake vaccination drive to help track down Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. He was killed there by US forces in 2011.

"We have a communication challenge, it's a mistrust issue," said Mr Baber Atta, who is helping oversee the country's vaccination drive.

Mr Atta said at least 260,000 health workers are involved in the vaccination campaign, with some 150,000 police escorting the teams.

However, Atta added that hundreds of thousands of children were likely to go unvaccinated during the current drive.

"There is a serious lack of trust among the parents," he said.

Polio is endemic in only three countries in the world - Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria - although a relatively rare strain was also detected in Papua New Guinea at the end of last year.

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