A murder in Pakistan threatens polio eradication

People comfort a family member of a female polio worker who was killed in northwest Pakistan on Tuesday. (Mohammad Sajjad / AP)

A United Nations worker was gunned down by extremists near Peshawar, Pakistan, while delivering vaccines Tuesday in the village of Kaggawala. The World Health Organization, which runs the Global Polio Eradication Initiative for the U.N., then announced that it was temporarily suspending the program in Pakistan.

The attack was not the first against the U.N's anti-polio program. In December of 2012, nine polio eradication workers were killed there, threatening progress against the crippling and deadly disease. Violence has also flared against vaccine workers in Nigeria which, along with Pakistan and Afghanistan, is one of the only three countries on earth where the disease is still endemic.

This upsurge in violence against U.N. polio vaccine workers was triggered, in part, by the CIA’s fake hepatitis B vaccination campaign run as part of the hunt for Osama bin Laden in 2011 (vaccine workers were sent to Bin Laden’s compound to try to collect DNA samples). Some Pakistanis have come to believe that vaccination is an American plot to sterilize them or to spy on them.

Nonetheless, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has made great progress in eradicating polio from the planet. Since 1988, annual cases of polio have decreased by more than 99% worldwide. To eliminate polio from the three remaining countries, and to prevent its resurgence in places like India, which reported its last case of polio in 2011, the program administered polio vaccines in 2012 to 448 million people in 48 countries.

Still, security concerns threaten to temporarily derail, or at least prolong, the polio eradication effort. This would come at a great cost. Polio hits children the hardest, and some experts have estimated the campaign’s failure would result in 250,000 children worldwide paralyzed from the disease every year. That would be an awful cost partially ascribed to the entirely predictable consequences of including public health workers in the C.I.A.s important effort to hunt down Bin Laden.

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