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Workers Brave Militant Attacks To Vaccinate For Polio


Ridding the world of polio was never going to be easy. But in Pakistan, one of three countries where the virus is still endemic, it's turning out to be even harder than many feared. The number of new cases there is rising. Anyone who takes part in the drive to vaccinate children in Pakistan risks their life. A terrible reminder of that came this past week with a deadly attack on a polio vaccination team.

We're joined now by NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad. Phil, first off, just tell us what happened in this attack.

PHILIP EEVES, BYLINE: Well, two men on a motorbike pulled up in front of a van. Inside the van, there was a team of polio vaccination workers. The men opened fire. They killed four of these health workers, of whom three were women. This happened when the polio vaccination team was on the final day of a drive in the city of Quetta in the Southwest in Pakistan.

Polio vaccination teams do regularly get attacked like this. In the last couple of years, more than 60 health workers or their security guards have been killed. But this was the deadliest attacked of this kind for quite a while.

MARTIN: So why is this happening?

REEVES: A couple of years back, the Taliban declared a ban on polio vaccination teams operating in areas where they're active. They did so after discovering that the CIA had used a fake hepatitis vaccination program to gather intelligence about Osama bin Laden. That reinforced the militants' view that these polio vaccination workers are, you know, Western agents or spies of some sort. And it also reinforced superstitions in remote parts of Pakistan that the polio vaccination drives are some sort of plot - Western plot to sterilize Muslims.

MARTIN: So presumably, because there are these drives happening, polio is a serious problem. How significant is the rise in new cases, and what's to account for it?

REEVES: Well, Pakistan is the only place where polio really is significantly expanding. One reason for it is the exodus of about a million people from the mountainous tribal belt bordering Afghanistan. That happened in the summer when the Pakistani military rolled in there on a big offensive to crush the Taliban and their allies, who, for years, have been using the area as a sanctuary.

The upside of it was that it meant that health workers could get access to lots of children as they came down from the mountains and administer vaccines to them. The down side was that they didn't get everybody, and lots of people have fanned out across the country taking the poliovirus with them.

MARTIN: So if these health care workers are being targeted, some losing their lives, where's the Pakistani government in all of this?

REEVES: Well, it's recently announced a big, new initiative to stamp out polio. They're talking about putting in more funds. They've set up a task force. They're going to use the military to provide security for polio health workers. But, you know, they have said this kind of thing before. And the only test of this new initiative will be the results. And the recent tragedy in Pakistan involving the killing of these polio workers is a reminder of exactly how difficult, dangerous complicated the task is.

MARTIN: NPR's Philip Reeves in Islamabad. Thanks so much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.