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Rumors of plot to sterilize Muslims with polio vaccine spark killings in Pakistan

So far nine health workers have been murdered while walking door to door to deliver polio vaccines to children in need because some believe the immunizations are part of a U.S. plot. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

Updated 8:00 p.m. ET: PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Pakistan may be one of the world's three remaining polio-stricken countries but Sartaj Khan has decided that the government-sponsored vaccination campaign is much more sinister than it appears.

"These vaccines are meant to destroy our nation," said Khan, a 42-year-old lawyer in the city of Peshawar. "The [polio] drops make men less manly, and make women more excited and less bashful. Our enemies want to wipe us out."

Khan is not alone in the belief, propagated by extremist groups, that is gaining currency in the Pashtun belt of northwestern Pakistan: The government’s anti-polio campaign is a ruse by the Americans to sterilize or spy on Muslims.


Many also believe that much like the Pakistani physician, Dr. Shakeel Afridi, who helped the CIA run a fake vaccination program to establish the presence of Osama bin Laden, the army of health workers employed to vaccinate the country’s children are also on the United States’ payroll.

The belief has turned deadly: Nine anti-polio workers have been killed by gunmen on motorcycles this week. Some of those killed were teenage girls. Following the violence, the United Nations pulled back all staff involved in the vaccination campaign and officials suspended it in some parts of the country.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

Images of daily life, political pursuits, religious rites and deadly violence.

There are ranks of parents whose awareness is low and suspicions high when it comes to the deadly virus: A November World Health Organization study found that 41 percent of those polled had never heard of polio — and 11 percent refused to vaccinate their children. 

The reality is that polio can paralyze or kill within hours of infection. It is transmitted person-to-person, meaning that as long as one child is infected, the disease can be passed to others. 

Photos: Vaccination workers gunned down in Pakistan

Nuclear-armed and militancy-struck Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only countries still struggling with polio.  Extremists have opposed vaccination programs in Afghanistan and Nigeria, although they haven’t resorted to the sort of violence seen in Pakistan. According to the World Health Organization, there were 213 new cases of polio worldwide in 2012, including 56 in Pakistan.

Mohsin Raza / Reuters

A female polio worker gives polio vaccine drops to a child in Lahore, Pakistan, on Thursday.

Polio also disproportionately affects members of the Pashtun population in Pakistan, who largely live in the country's northwest and border region. They account for roughly 15 percent of the population, but 75 percent of all polio cases.

Shamim Bibi, a 25-year-old mother of two who has been working in Peshawar’s suburbs as an anti-polio campaign worker for the last nine years, said she had never before faced hostility in her line of work.

"For years, we were welcomed into homes by families," she said. "In 2012, attitudes changed. Now, they look at us with a sort of suspicion. Some people have even said it to my face: that I’m an American spy."

More Pakistan coverage from NBC News

Suspicion of the United States does indeed run deep.  Unknown gunmen may have assassinated 14-year-old anti-polio worker Farzana Rehman in her hometown of Peshawar but her grieving father is placing the blame for her death further afield.


"My daughter was too young to leave this world," an obviously distraught Said Rehman told NBC News. "Polio didn’t take her. This American war did. So what’s the bigger danger, huh?"

The American war refers to the post-Sept. 11, 2001, violence that has swept Pakistan and Afghanistan, in particular U.S. drone strikes that enrage many.  In parts of Pakistan, the war is also called the Kharji, or "white person's" war.

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As experts cite the latest violence as a new form of "low tech, high concept" attacks by Pakistan’s militants, Rehman can only wonder if those trying to stop the disease are missing the point.

"Disease didn’t take my child. A bullet did," he said. 

Reuters contributed to this report.

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