Anti-Polio Efforts Hampered By OBL Raid

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 18 2012 12:00 PM

The Bin Laden Raid Made It Much More Difficult To Fight Polio in Pakistan

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A Pakistan health worker gives polio vaccine drops to a child in Peshawar on Sept. 11, 2012

Photograph by A. Majeed/AFP/GettyImages.

Six health care workers in Pakistan are dead, and an anecdote from the real-life drama that was the hunt for Osama Bin Laden may be the reason why.

The workers, five women and one man, were staffing a polio immunization drive in Karachi when they were gunned down in what were believed to be three separate, coordinated attacks on Tuesday. No one group has taken credit for the shootings, but anti-polio workers have long drawn the ire of the Taliban, and the attacks were all carried out in neighborhoods notoriously chock-full of Taliban-connected militants.

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Pakistan is one of just three countries where polio remains prevalent, a problem exacerbated tremendously by the Taliban's violent push-back against attempts to eradicate the disease. They have long been suspicious of anti-polio workers and volunteers, branding most organizations and immunization efforts as fronts for American-run spies. Those suspicions, however, have at least some basis in fact, as the New York Times reminds us:

That perception was strengthened after the American commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in June 2011, when it emerged that the Central Intelligence Agency had paid a Pakistani doctor to run a vaccination program in Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was hiding, in a bid to obtain DNA evidence from his family.
Pakistani authorities arrested the doctor, Shakil Afridi, shortly after the American raid, and he has been sentenced to 33 years in prison.

The latest attacks come on the heels of a Taliban strike on a Pakistani Air Force base in Peshawar that killed 15, and another at a neighboring tribal village that killed 19. In response to the attacks in Karachi, the health minister for the Sindh Province has put the immunization drive in that city on hold for the time being.

While the immunization drive will most likely continue elsewhere in the country, the murders underscore the very real threat that health care workers face in the Taliban-controlled regions of Pakistan, as well as the continuing difficulty confronting global health officials as they attempt to eradicate the disease.

A.J. McCarthy is a Slate video blogger.