As Death Toll Reaches Eight Polio Workers, Taliban Deny Responsibility for Attacks They Fomented

At least two more polio workers have been killed today in Pakistan, raising the death toll to eight since the latest three day immunization drive started this week. Reuters brings details from today’s attacks

Wednesday saw four separate attacks, all in the north. In the district of Charsadda, men on motorbikes shot dead a woman and her driver, police and health officials said.

Hours earlier, gunmen wounded a male health worker in the nearby provincial capital of Peshawar. He was in critical condition, said a doctor at the Lady Reading Hospital where he is being treated.

Four other women health workers were shot at but not hit in nearby Nowshera, said Jan Baz Afridi, deputy head of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation. Two women health workers were shot at in Dwasaro village in Charsadda, police said.

The attacks on Tuesday in Karachi happened in very rapid succession, as reported by the Express Tribune:

Madiha, 19, and Fahmida, 44, were the first two to be slain in the Gulshan-e-Buner area of Landhi. Within 15 minutes, Naseema Akhtar, was shot dead in Orangi Town, while her colleague, Israr, was critically injured in the attack.

Thirty minutes later, Kaneez Jan, was shot dead in Ittehad Town, while her coworker, Rashid, was injured in the attack.

As was pointed out in July when a doctor in Karachi was shot during the vaccination drive at that time, violence directed at polio workers was not expected there. Instead, it was expected in the tribal areas where both the general rumors of the vaccination program being run by spies and the vaccination plan being a plot to sterilize Muslims are rampant. In addition, there was the more specific admonition by Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur that vaccinations in the tribal areas would not be allowed until US drone attacks stopped.

Remarkably, even though the Taliban in Pakistan have spoken out against the immunization drives in the past, they appear to be denying responsibility for the current attacks. From the Reuters article linked above:

The Taliban have repeatedly threatened health workers involved in the campaign. Some said they received calls telling them to stop working with “infidels” just before the attacks.

But a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, Ihsanullah Ihsan, told Reuters his group was not involved in the violence.

Despite that denial, we learn from the New York Times that Taliban figures were blamed for today’s attacks:

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban denied responsibility for the attacks, although the insurgents have a history of threatening polio eradication programs, claiming they are a cover for American espionage activities.

But the police in Peshawar said that Taliban fighters based in Mohmand tribal agency, north of Peshawar, were involved in at least two of the attacks in the Peshawar area.

As I pointed out in my post yesterday, I blame Leon Panetta’s confirmation that Dr. Shakil Afridi helped the CIA with his vaccination ruse for significantly escalating the verbal and now physical attacks against workers distributing polio vaccine. In a Twitter conversation with @ArifCRafiq yesterday evening, we discussed the relative timing of the disclosure of Afridi’s involvement, Panetta’s confirmation of the CIA link and the attacks on polio workers. Rafiq suggested that this Guardian article published July 11, 2011 was the first mention of Afridi. The final sentence of the article stands out as the most important for Panetta’s subsequent actions:

The CIA refused to comment on the vaccination plot.

As commenter FrankProbst pointed out in a comment on yesterday’s post, approving the fake vaccination plot was a big mistake by the CIA, but confirming it compounded that mistake. Panetta’s confirmation of Afridi’s role was in January of this year, as Marcy posted. In my opinion, Panetta’s confirmation kept the issue of Afridi prominent in the news and provided a much stronger case for those who wanted to stoke the previously existing rumors that vaccination plans are run by spies.

As for Afridi himself, I still wonder if he has quietly been moved out of Pakistan. I asked one of his most vocal supporters, Dana Rohrabacher, on Twitter if he had more information on Afridi’s status that could be shared. He replied that he intends to “launch a save Dr. Afridi campaign” early in January. In the meantime, I’m still waiting for evidence that he remains in the Peshawar Central Jail.

In the midst of these events, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that polio eradication is very nearly within reach. Besides Pakistan, polio is reported to be endemic in Afghanistan and Nigeria. The Reuters article above points out that as recently as 1994, there were 20,000 cases in Pakistan. From CNN, we see that there were 173 cases reported in Pakistan last year and only 53 this year. Considering that hundreds of thousands of health workers are involved in the polio vaccination campaign aimed at protecting millions of Pakistani children, the current halt in the program could have devastating consequences for many of those children and for the drive to eradicate polio from the earth.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
7 replies
  1. Jeffrey Kaye says:

    There is a much bigger story here, and that is that the US has used or interfered in medical inoculation campaigns over the decades, and this likely will not be the last time. In all cases I know of, the reason were related to US intelligence programs.

    The Ur-story for all of this was the Teigin Incident, still one of the worst mass killing crimes of all times. Even over 60 years since it happened, it still can generate front-page news. Maybe not in the U.S. (though the NYT covered it again in past 10 years), but certainly abroad.

    From Australia’s The Age, July 2003:

    On January 26, 1948, the workers at the Imperial Bank at Shiinamachi, an inner suburb of Tokyo, were about to close for the day and tally their books….

    Suddenly, a man in his 40s appeared, wearing an armband reading Metropolitan Office, City Hall of Tokyo. He had a bag slung over his shoulder.

    The man announced there had been an outbreak of dysentery in the area and he was to carry out inoculations….

    He proceeded to give the 16 present, including the family of the bank’s custodian, two drafts of what he told them was the medicine that would save them. It was a complicated procedure, involving carefully measured doses.

    Within minutes the 16 collapsed. Twelve would die, including a child.

    For an already demoralised society, the shock of this mass murder was profound. So it was with a general relief that Tokyo heard eight months later that Sadamichi Hirasawa, a famed tempura artist, had been arrested and confessed. He was tried and sentenced to hang.

    But this was far from the end of the story. Hirasawa retracted his “confession”, saying he was coerced into making it…

    But it was not an unheard cry. A support group was formed. Sixteen years after his death, it still meets….

    One of the crucial pieces of evidence his supporters have is a link between the mass murder and one of the darkest secrets of Imperial Japan’s war of aggression through Asia – the infamous biological and chemical warfare Unit 731.

    The theory runs that members of the former unit were linked to the mass murder.

    Hirasawa was the fall guy, as the activities of Unit 731 were covered up by the United States in return for obtaining the research from their awful experiments in Manchuria – the “Asian Auschwitz” – that killed at least 250,000 Chinese.

    As part of the deal, members of the unit were not prosecuted by the Tokyo war crimes tribunal.They blended back into Japanese life….

    Hard evidence that police were investigating a link with Unit 731 – and the various operations connected with it – was uncovered by US journalist William Triplett, in his 1985 book Flowering of the Bamboo.

    Searching through the US National Archives, Triplett uncovered documents from the investigation. A memo from GHQ’s public safety division talks of police working on the lead involving “the investigation of all personnel who attended or were employed during the war years on a secret army chemical laboratory.”

  2. Jeffrey Kaye says:

    @Jeffrey Kaye: Btw, recently I discovered some overlooked evidence in the public record relating to this case, and will be publishing it soon.

    The entire story of US collaboration with Unit 731 officials and absorption of their program is one of the darkest chapters of US history, and one of the least known.

    And Jim, I hope you forgive the O/T on this. (Though I believe the context is important.)

  3. TarheelDem says:

    Pakistan is not the only country in which super-fundamentalist Muslims groups have killed immunization workers. Nigeria is another one. And the reasons go beyond politics and into the same sort of thinking that some conservative Christian groups in the US have for opposing vaccinations.

    While the response to the use of Dr. Afridi in the tracking of Osama bin Laden likely intensified the anger, the idea of immunization as a Western intrusion in Islamic life is a multi-decade-long reaction to international vaccination programs. Exactly as polio is almost eradicated.

    I get a little impatient when every story becomes a vehicle of American self-hatred. Sometimes the narrative fits; sometimes it doesn’t; sometimes it’s a half-truth. Focusing too much on the American role can lead to error just as quickly as ignoring it.

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