By Jibran Ahmed
PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – Gunmen shot and killed two police officers escorting a polio vaccination team on Wednesday forcing a suspension of the immunization campaign in a district of northwest Pakistan, where the crippling disease is endemic.
Previous attacks have been inspired by religious hardliners spreading false rumors, and the latest ambush of a vaccination team comes at a time when the polio cases in Pakistan have jumped from 12 to over 100 in the last one year, making it only one of three countries in the world where the disease is endemic.
The gunmen opened fire at the officials when they were escorting the vaccination team in Lower Dir district, said police official Sultan Ghani. “The polio campaign has been suspended after the incident in the area,” he said.
Of the 104 total polio cases in Pakistan, 75 has been reported from the northwest Pakistan, a region plagued by Islamist militancy.
No one claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack, though religious hardliners over the past year have raised a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated vaccines.
In the past, militants have called vaccination teams foreign agents, and peddled conspiracy theories that their campaigns were a Western ploy to sterilize Muslims.
Pakistan’s government has tried to counter those falsehoods with public education campaigns, recruiting Muslim religious leaders to reassure people that the vaccine only protects their children.
The involvement of a Pakistani doctor in helping U.S. intelligence agents to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden had fueled suspicion of the anti-polio campaign, though attacks on vaccination teams pre-dated the 2011 killing of the al Qaeda leader in the northwestern town of Abbottabad.
Afghanistan and Nigeria are the other countries where the polio virus, which can cause paralysis or death, remains endemic.
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)