By Syed Raza Hassan
KARACHI, Pakistan, April 20 – Unidentified gunmen attacked policemen guarding medical workers administering polio vaccinations in Pakistan on Wednesday, killing seven of them, in the latest violence against efforts to eradicate the crippling childhood disease.
The policemen were killed in two attacks in the city of Karachi, a sprawling port metropolis of more than 20 million people that has been plagued by ethnic, sectarian and political violence for years.
The attacks took place within 600 metres (650 yards) of each other near a market, a senior police official said.
“One took place at the three policemen who were escorting a polio team, the policemen were on foot when they were attacked,” said the official, Ali Asif.
“In the second incident, four policemen in a police van were targeted.”
Polio, which can cause lifelong paralysis, is now endemic in only two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Teams in Pakistan working to immunize children against the virus are often targeted by Taliban and other militant groups, who say the campaign is a cover for Western spies, or accuse workers of distributing drugs designed to sterilise children.
At least 89 people – including vaccination workers and policemen – have been killed in such attacks since July 2012, according to a Reuters tally based on United Nations figures and media reports.
Last year, Pakistan reported 54 of 74 worldwide cases of polio, down drastically from the 306 cases reported in the country the year before, mainly due to expanded immunisation efforts.
Government officials in Karachi said the immunisation drive would be suspended while the violence was investigated.
In January, 15 people were killed by a suicide bomber at a polio eradication centre in the southwestern city of Quetta. Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for that attack.