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WHO suspends Pakistan operations after polio workers shot dead

Mohammad Sajjad / AP

People comfort a family member of a female polio worker who was killed in northwest Pakitan on Tuesday.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Two health workers giving polio vaccines to children were shot dead in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday, prompting the World Health Organisation to suspend its operations in the area.

Anti-polio workers started being attacked after a Pakistani doctor, Shakeel Afridi, ran a fake polio campaign in the city of Abbottabad to help the United States track down Osama bin Laden, according to a senior health official in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the latest killings happened.

Saood Rehman / EPA

Pakistani health workers administer polio vaccines to children in Dera Ismail Khan, Afghanistan, on Monday. The workers have been targeted in recent killings.

WHO officials say 18 people, including health workers and police officers, have been killed and seven others injured during attacks since July 2012.

And nine anti-polio workers were also killed in Nigeria in February. Suspicion fell on Islamist militant group Boko Haram, which has condemned the use of Western medicine.

On Tuesday, senior police officials in Peshawar said the two health workers were killed when they went to a nearby village to vaccinate children against polio.

“Both the female health workers were administering polio vaccines to children in Badbher village of Peshawar when two armed men came on motorbike and opened fire at them,” said a local police officer, Bakhtiar Khan.

He said one of the female polio workers, identified as Sharafat, 18, died on the spot while her colleague Sumbal Gul, 20, suffered serious gunshot wounds. She was taken to Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar, where she died of her wounds.

Family members of Sharafat said she was going to be married next month.

The Peshawar police chief Liaqat Ali Khan said they lived in the village where they were killed and the offer of a police escort.

“Keeping in view the deteriorated security situation and growing attacks on polio workers, the government sends two police guards with each polio team to protect them during vaccination drive. A number of policemen had lost their lives during the past one year while escorting polio workers in KP [the province],” the police chief said.

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.

After the attack on the polio team, a large number of security personnel went to the area, but they were unable to make any arrests.

Senior officials of the health department in Peshawar said the World Health Organisation called an emergency meeting after the attack and decided to suspend all their operations in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

A senior WHO official said growing numbers of parents were refusing to have their children vaccinated against polio.

“There is misconception among the people and associate polio vaccines with an attempt by the government to control birth ratio, which is totally wrong,” the WHO official said on condition of anonymity.

A senior official of the provincial health department, Janbaz Afridi, who heads immunization campaign in the province, said the polio workers began facing serious security challenges after Afridi ran the fake polio campaign to help the CIA find bin Laden.

”The day people learnt about this dirty game of Dr. Shakeel Afridi, they started hating all health workers, particularly those engaged in vaccination drive and consider them spies,” Janbaz said.

In North Waziristan, five polio cases have been reported so far and around 160,000 children have gone unvaccinated during the last year. Government officials said they feared more cases of the disease were likely.