ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Gunmen shot and killed a police officer assigned to safeguard a polio vaccination team in the northwest city of Mardan on Tuesday, the latest in a pattern of attacks that have jeopardized efforts to rein in the disease in the South Asian nation.
The officer, Said Muhammad, was providing security for a husband-and-wife team carrying out vaccinations in Mardan’s Sheikh Maltoon neighborhood when two attackers on a motorcycle rode up and opened fire, local officials said. The vaccination workers were unhurt, but Muhammad died instantly.
The attack occurred while the female vaccination worker was inside a house administering vaccination drops to children, and her husband was outside marking the exterior wall to indicate vaccinations were being completed there, said Muhammad Ayaz, a vaccination worker who rushed to the site after hearing shots fired.
In recent months, militants unleashed a wave of violence against polio vaccination workers across the country, denouncing the vaccination drives by U.N.-backed Pakistani healthcare workers as a guise for American spying activity.
At least 11 polio vaccination workers have been killed in Pakistan since December. A land mine blast killed two polio vaccination workers in the tribal region of Kurram on Jan. 31. Assailants killed nine vaccination workers in Karachi and northwest Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in December.
The government's decision to assign police to accompany polio vaccination teams hasn’t deterred the militants. On Jan. 29, gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire on a police officer guarding two female polio vaccination workers in the northwest city of Swabi, killing the officer.
The vaccination workers escaped unhurt.
Pakistan is one of three countries where polio remains endemic -- the other two are Afghanistan and Nigeria. Polio vaccination workers have been targeted for death in both of those countries as well.
Last year, the number of polio cases in Pakistan dropped, from 173 in 2011 to 56 in 2012.
Caused by a virus that attacks the nervous system, polio is highly communicable and can result in irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Found more often in countries that lack proper sanitation and hygiene, it mostly affects children under the age of 5. The virus typically enters the body through the mouth and then is spread through fecal contamination of food or beverages.
Staff writer Alex Rodriguez reported from Islamabad, and special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.