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Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - Page updated at 07:30 p.m.

U.N. doctor on mission to eradicate polio from Pakistan is shot

The New York Times

ISLAMABAD — Gunmen opened fire on a U.N. vehicle in the southern port city of Karachi on Tuesday, seriously wounding a Ghanaian doctor who was part of an urgent campaign to eradicate polio from Pakistan.

The attack was a further blow to the three-day polio vaccination drive, which had already been stymied in some parts of the country by Taliban threats. Attacks on international aid workers in Karachi have been rare.

The U.N. vehicle came under fire as it passed through Gadap, a neighborhood on the northwestern outskirts of Karachi, early Tuesday.

The doctor, who was shot in the abdomen, was taken to the private Aga Khan Hospital for emergency treatment, according to Guido Sabatinelli, country director for the World Health Organization, who spoke by phone from Karachi.

"We don't know exactly why this shooting took place, but it is probably related to the polio-eradication program," Sabatinelli said.

The shooting cast an ominous cloud over a major effort to push back a rising tide of polio cases in Pakistan, one of just three countries where the disease is still endemic; the others are Afghanistan and Nigeria. Pakistan reported 198 new infections in 2011, the most in the world.

Thousands of Pakistani government health workers are walking door to door, administering oral vaccines to children under 5. The United Nations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private donors are helping to finance the effort and providing expert assistance.

The campaign is difficult because every vulnerable child must be vaccinated several times to be fully protected, which is especially difficult to achieve in the violent northwestern tribal belt along the Afghan border, the last major reservoir of new infections in the country.

Last month, Taliban leaders in two tribal areas, North and South Waziristan, said they would not allow vaccinators to treat children there unless the U.S. halted its campaign of drone strikes against militants in the area.

The Taliban also claimed that the vaccination campaign was a cover for U.S. espionage, and referred to Shakil Afridi, the Pakistani doctor hired by the CIA to help track Osama bin Laden in early 2011, who had also worked on polio vaccinations.

The Pakistani government tried to negotiate with the Taliban to allow vaccinations in the area, without success; health officials now say that as many as 250,000 children will miss out on vaccinations this week.

It was not clear why the Ghanaian doctor came under attack in Karachi, which has also seen a spike in polio cases, caused in part by an influx of ethnic Pashtuns fleeing fighting in the northwest.

Many of the Pashtuns in the city live in cramped, impoverished conditions, which can foster the spread of the disease, particularly in the humid summer.

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