For Immediate Release
PHR strongly condemns the fatal attacks this week on eight health workers engaged in a polio immunization program in Pakistan. The deaths, which prompted the temporary suspension of the program in some districts, are only the latest reminder of the high price the world continues to pay for the politicization of health care.
Although no one has taken responsibility for the murders, most of which occurred in Karachi and Peshawar, Taliban militants have long opposed immunization in Pakistan and Afghanistan—two of the last countries in the world where polio remains endemic.
Conservative clerics have issued a fatwa denouncing as a Western plot the immunization program, which is run jointly by the government and UN agencies and relies on thousands of temporary workers to administer oral vaccinations in high-risk neighborhoods to children under 5 years old. Some of those workers in the current campaign reported getting phone calls warning them to stop working with “the infidels.”
Plenty of Pakistanis have long harbored skepticism about government vaccination programs, citing rumors that health workers were using outdated vaccines or that the program was a plot to sterilize Muslims. But the CIA’s now widely publicized use of a local doctor and planned use of a fake immunization campaign as a ruse to pinpoint the location of Osama bin Laden has fanned fears of the skeptics, who now add foreign espionage to the list of reasons to oppose the polio program. Some Taliban leaders have said they would not permit immunizations to proceed until the US stops all drone strikes in the region.
“It is outrageous that Pakistani militants are holding hostage the health of their own children and communities to further their political agenda,” said Donna McKay, executive director of PHR.
“At the same time, when the US government recruits health professionals to carry out its security objectives—whether collecting DNA samples in Abbottabad or interrogating detainees in Guantanamo Bay—millions of people around the world lose trust in what has been the bedrock principle of medical care ever since Hippocrates: that physicians’ principal duty is to their patients’ well-being,” McKay said. “The US government must not use medical professionals in pursuit of their intelligence objectives, and must respect and foster the ethical obligations of health care workers.”
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.