In Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated children are at risk of contracting polio, a disease that causes incurable paralysis. While health workers travel door-to-door to vaccinate children, in hopes of eradicating the crippling disease, they are also under attack. But instead of a deadly virus, these medics are fighting another fatal threat: the Pakistani Taliban.
On Wednesday this threat struck once again — suspending vital vaccination efforts in Pakistan’s largest city. In broad daylight outside a market in Karachi, Pakistan, seven police officers were gunned down while escorting a vaccination team. No health workers were harmed.
“The target was purely the police,” said local police chief Allah Dino Khwaja.
“[The officers] sacrificed their lives today for securing the future of our coming generations,” said Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif in a statement.
Wednesday’s attack was the deadliest of its kind since a Taliban-affiliated suicide bomber killed 15 people outside a vaccination center in Quetta, Pakistan, in January.
The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility for the drive-by shooting and promised future attacks. The militant group has targeted polio volunteers for decades in Pakistan and Afghanistan, accusing health workers of spreading disease and spying on behalf of Western governments.
“We have deep sensitivity about the polio vaccination,” Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan told The Associated Press in 2014. “We still have strong suspicions that the vaccination campaign could be used again and again to spy on Muslims.”
In recent years, shootings of polio immunization workers and their security teams have killed more than the disease itself, according to data from the World Health Organization. In 2014, militants killed 89 health workers in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria — the last three countries where polio remains. Meanwhile polio killed between 15 and 30 people.
This year is on track for even grimmer figures. In the last 16 months alone, over 95 police officers have been killed.
The uptick in violence comes at a critical time for vaccination efforts. Tomorrow marks the midway point of a two-week global vaccine switch, during which time 155 countries and territories will safely dispose of hundreds of millions of polio vaccines, switching to a new version of the vaccine.
The goal of the switch is to stop immunizing against Type 2 polio. Since this strain of the virus was eradicated in 1999, the Type 2 component of the oral polio vaccine is no longer needed, according to polio experts. The new vaccine will immunize only against Types 1 and 3.
If the switch is successful, it will dramatically reduce the incidence of vaccine-associated polio.