Health workers in Peshawar, Pakistan, give a polio vaccine to a child during… (Bilawal Arbab / EPA )
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Five female anti-polio workers in Pakistan were slain Tuesday by gunmen on motorcycles, police said, on the second day of a three-day national immunization campaign.
Four of the women were killed in Karachi, the nation's largest city, and the fifth in Peshawar.
Sagheer Ahmed, the health minister for Sindh province, whose capital is Karachi, ordered a halt to the anti-polio drive in the port city after the shootings. Health officials said vaccinations were also halted until further notice in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, where Peshawar is located.
Senior Karachi police officer Shahid Hayat told reporters that another polio worker was shot dead in Karachi on Monday, although the circumstances of that male worker's death and its link to the vaccination program only became clear Tuesday. Hayat blamed the Karachi killings on "militants who issued a fatwa against polio vaccination in the past."
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf strongly condemned the attacks. The president added in a statement that every community should cooperate fully with national polio eradication teams toward the goal of eradicating the disease.
Police said the women in Karachi were shot in the head at close range in well-coordinated attacks using 9-millimeter pistols. The killings occurred within 15 minutes of each other in three different locations within the sprawling city.
As of late Tuesday, no one had taken responsibility for the attacks, said Sana Bari, Geneva-based spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, making it difficult to discern their motives. She called for local law enforcement to bring those responsible to justice.
"What's most ironic, these are children from the most under-served communities, the worst off, being used for political purposes," she said. "This is one of the deepest tragedies."
In June, warlords and local leaders in North and South Waziristan banned the vaccination program, accusing health workers of spying for the U.S. as part of its unmanned drone program. Leaflets distributed in the Wana subdivision of South Waziristan cited the case of Dr. Shakil Afridi, who helped the CIA hunt down Osama bin Laden by conducting a fake vaccination program in Abbottabad.
"On the one hand, they are killing innocent children in drone strikes, while on the other hand they are saving their lives by vaccinating them," the pamphlet said. "It's like a wolf in sheep's clothing."
At its peak in the 1940s and 50s, the polio virus paralyzed or killed half a million people a year, but effective vaccines have nearly eradicated the disease. However, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria continue to suffer epidemics.
Pakistan has made progress this year, reducing the number of cases to 56, from 156 in 2011, as the government made fighting the disease a priority. Those killed this week are among Pakistan's 200,000 poorly paid local health workers, most of whom also provide such basic services as vitamin distribution.
“We cannot and will not allow polio to wreak havoc with the lives of our children,” Ashraf told reporters Tuesday.
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Khan reported from Islamabad and Magnier from New Delhi.