KARACHI/PESHAWAR, July 17: The polio prevention campaign suffered a double setback on Tuesday when a foreign doctor of the World Health Organisation associated with the immunisation work and his driver were injured in an attack in Karachi and a tribal jirga planned in North Waziristan to prepare ground for launching the campaign there could not be held because of a curfew in force there and concerns about security of health workers.
A Taliban ban on polio vaccination in North Waziristan has caused concerns about hundreds of thousands of children who have not been immunised there and in several other Fata areas.
After the incident in Karachi, the UN health agency’s regional coordinator Elias Durrye said the campaign would not be suspended in the area near Sohrab Goth where the doctor had come under attack. He said it was a national campaign, the authorities concerned were aware of the job they were doing in the area and “we will continue to work there”.
Dr Fosten Dido from Ghana was returning from the Afghan Basti when two men on a motorcycle fired at their official vehicle near Al Asif Square.
They were taken to the Aga Khan University Hospital where the doctor was admitted and the driver was treated for minor bruises caused by a bullet.
The condition of Dr Dido was said to be stable.
Dr Dido, in his late 40s, had come to Pakistan in January. He is an expert in virology and was working with the WHO team in Karachi.
According to Deputy Inspector General (Karachi East) Shahid Hayat, the vehicle was attacked at around 11.30am with 30-bore pistols.
Malir Deputy Commissioner Qazi Jan Mohammad quoted the driver as saying that the two attackers were standing near a billboard and one of them, holding pistols in both hands, fired at the vehicle. At least five bullets hit the vehicle.
Meanwhile, in Peshawar, official sources said the three-day national immunisation campaign was under way in the entire country except North and South Waziristan where Taliban had banned it last month.
“The jirga was supposed to be held on Monday and Tuesday but the local administration was unable to organise it because of continuing curfew,” they said.
The sources said the authorities had contacted tribal elders and religious leaders to hold the jirga to arrange resumption of the campaign in the region.
They said the jirga would strive to persuade the militants that oral polio vaccine was necessary for children aged under five years.
A delegation would meet Taliban’s representatives after the jirga, they said.
North and South Waziristan had recorded one polio case each this year and there were pockets of un-immunised children who posed a threat to children in other areas also, they said.
Officials said the government was trying to ensure immunisation of children in the region because the Federally Administered Tribal Areas posed serious threats to the global polio eradication efforts.
Agencies add: The Taliban banned immunisations in the area, condemning the campaigns as a cover for espionage since a doctor was jailed after helping the CIA find Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden using a hepatitis vaccination programme.
After the attack in Karachi, the UN health agency said: “At this point there is no evidence to suggest that this was a deliberate or targeted attack against polio eradication efforts or WHO. WHO is grateful to the Pakistan authorities for launching an investigation into this event.
“This incident will not distract from the progress Pakistan is making this year, as the country is closer than ever to eradication.”
The country had recorded 22 cases of polio so far this year, against 59 during the same period last year, WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer said.
The WHO paid tribute to the “incredible bravery” of more than 200,000, mainly Pakistani volunteers who run every vaccination campaign.
Police suspected that the men involved in the attack were Afghans.
They suggested that the doctor might have been targeted deliberately, because he had been working in the neighbourhood for about three months.
“It could be related to the polio campaign, as there is resistance in the population against it. We are, however, still investigating the real motives,” local police station chief Mohammad Sultan told AFP.
A health expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, interpreted the attack as a sign of an alarming trend.
He said there had been threats and announcements in mosques branding the vaccine anti-Islam and blamed “a new wave of attacks on polio workers” on CIA’s use of a doctor, Shakeel Afridi, to help find Osama. “It has become a very serious and critical issue. People suspect foreigners’ involvement in the programme and fake campaign by Afridi has given further credence to conspiracy theory,” he said.
He said polio workers were beaten in Islamabad on Monday, a team was fired on in Jacobabad and a motorcycle stolen in Ziarat.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio remains endemic, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The Taliban ban and insecurity have forced officials to postpone inoculations in parts of the tribal belt, jeopardising the health of more than 350,000 children.