Gunmen have killed a polio vaccinator in Pakistan's Punjab province just a day after the Taliban claimed responsibility for attacking two policemen assigned to protect an immunization team in the country's northwest.
Muhammad Sarfaraz, 40, was giving polio vaccination drops to children on Tuesday in the eastern city of Faisalabad when he was shot dead by two unidentified assailants, a police official told the AFP news agency. "Gunmen on a motorcycle fired six shots and he died on the spot," Ali Waseem said, adding that it was unclear whether Sarfaraz was targeted by Islamists opposed to polio inoculations or because of personal enmities.
On Monday, the Taliban killed two policemen escorting a team of polio workers in the northwestern Buner region of the restive Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan.
DW obtained a press statement issued by Punjab health adviser Salman Rafiq condemning the first killing of a polio vaccinator in the province.
Experts say the militants' attacks have made it extremely difficult for health workers to run their campaign
DW correspondent Tanvir Shahzad says that, unlike in other parts of the country, there is almost no resistance to polio drops in Punjab. "Sarfaraz's murder comes at a time when Faisalabad is under heavy security due to ongoing anti-government protests aimed at overthrowing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government. That shows how vulnerable these health workers are," Shahzad said from the eastern city of Lahore.
The South Asian nation is one of the three places in the world, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio remains endemic.
Opposition from Islamists
In July 2012, Pakistani authorities had to postpone an anti-polio campaign in the northwestern Waziristan region after the Taliban banned inoculations, claiming the drive was similar to a hepatitis vaccination program run by the imprisoned Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi. Afridi allegedly helped the US intelligence agency CIA find al Qaeda's former leader Osama bin Laden, who was eventually killed by the US Special Forces at his Abbottabad hideout in May 2011. Afridi is currently in a Pakistani prison facing treason and murder charges.
Experts say the militants' attacks have made it extremely difficult for health workers to run their campaign. They say that a failure of the polio eradication drive would be devastating for the country and its already weak economy.
A 'tipping point'
According to the country's health officials, the number of polio cases detected in Pakistan so far this year stands at 202. This is the highest figure in 15 years exceeding the previous record of 199 infections in 2001.
Lack of proper access to anti-polio vaccination has led to a rise in polio cases in the South Asian nation. The number of polio cases in Pakistan rose from 58 in 2012 to 91 in 2013, out of which 65 were located in the remote tribal region bordering Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) described the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Peshawar, as "the world's largest pool of polio virus."
"The current polio situation in Pakistan is critical. The country is really at a tipping point. All the other places in the world where people are still infected have seen massive decreases in the number of new cases," Sona Bari, spokeswoman for polio eradication at the WHO, said in a DW interview.