Polio vaccination worker is shot and killed in Pakistan

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 24 July 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5061
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

The World Health Organization has described as a “hero” a polio vaccination worker who was shot and killed in Pakistan.

Muhammad Ishaq was shot at a dispensary in Karachi on Friday evening, just three days after two WHO workers were shot at in the same area of the city.1

A statement released by WHO said that Ishaq, who was not a member of WHO staff but a local community worker, had worked with the polio eradication campaign for several months, helping to plan and implement vaccination campaigns. It said, “Because of the dedication of heroes like Mr Ishaq Pakistan is this year closer than ever to the eradication of polio. He was known for his dedication and diligence to immunise all children against polio.”

The shooting took place at a dispensary where Ishaq had worked for the past 15 years, not while he was carrying out any vaccination work. Maryam Yunus, a WHO spokeswoman in Pakistan, said that it was too early to say whether the earlier shooting and the killing of Ishaq were linked.

“Police investigations are still ongoing,” she said. “The WHO workers were shot in broad daylight. This person [Muhammad Ishaq] was not a WHO staff member and was not doing polio work. It’s too early to establish whether he was shot because of the polio campaign or whether it was because of a personal enmity.”

The polio vaccination programme had already been suspended in the area of Karachi where the most recent shooting took place. The first shooting took place during Pakistan’s national immunisation days from 16 to 18 July, a campaign to vaccinate 34 million children.

The Pakistani government, WHO, and the United Nations’ children’s agency Unicef have been scaling up efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan, one of six countries in the world which has persistent transmission of the disease.2

Yunus said that the police were reviewing security of health staff in the area and that WHO was taking “every possible step” to safeguard the health of its workers.

Michael Coleman, a spokesman for Unicef in Pakistan, said that so far no one had claimed responsibility for the shooting.

“The high profile nature of the polio eradication programme means there have been threats but nothing of this nature. We work in close collaboration with local authorities to establish how credible these threats are. It’s very difficult to provide security for workers, and the best we can do where there have been credible threats or attacks on workers is to make sure that they’re safe,” he said.

There have been concerns that mistrust of the vaccination campaign has been building in Pakistan after it was discovered that a Pakistani doctor had been running a fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign as part of the US government’s efforts to track down Osama bin Laden.3 Earlier this month the leaders of North and South Waziristan, thousands of kilometres from Karachi, refused to allow workers to vaccinate children.

The shooting took place in an area of Karachi called Gadap Town, a densely populated and poor district. No cases of polio have been reported in the city in recent months, and the latest weekly figures from the global polio eradication initiative, led by WHO, show that there have been 23 cases of polio since the beginning of the year, down from 59 in the same period last year.

WHO and Unicef officials do not yet know how many children in the city have missed out on vaccinations because of the shooting.

A statement from the UN said, “WHO, Unicef, and all of the polio partners in Pakistan and globally express their deepest sympathy to his family for this tragic loss. The partners of the global polio eradication initiative remain committed to supporting the government of Pakistan and the people of Pakistan in their efforts to eradicate this devastating disease.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e5061