Published on 2 Jan 2013 Sections , ,

Pakistani children die as militants fight immunisation

Measles cases have surged in Pakistan over the last year as suspicion over vaccinations and attacks on aid workers are leading to the deaths of hundreds of children.

Pakistani officials have launched an immunisation campaign to reach children in the worst-hit areas, but the country struggles with unsanitary conditions and lack of education about disease prevention.

Efforts to combat disease have been stifled by attacks on aid workers across the country.

On Wednesday hundreds of mourners attended the funerals of five female teachers and two aid workers who were ambushed and killed the day before. The charity they worked for has claimed their deaths could be linked to recent murders of vaccination workers.

The attack has been blamed on Islamic militants who oppose women’s education in the region – they took palce in the same conservative province where in October militants shot and seriously wounded 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai, an outspoken young activist for girls’ education.

The teachers and aid workers were killed in the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, an area where Islamic militants often target women teachers and have blown up schools. They have also kidnapped and killed aid workers, claiming that they promote a foreign agenda with nine people working on an anti-polio vaccination campaign killed last month.

Measles outbreak

A spokeswoman for the World Health Organization, Maryam Yunus, has revealed that 306 children died of measles in Pakistan in 2012, compared with 64 for the year before. The jump was most pronounced in southern Sindh province, where measles killed 210 children in 2012 an increase on the 28 children that died there in 2011.

Provincial health minister Saghir Ahmed said 100 children died in Sindh province in December alone, mainly in areas where people were not vaccinated. He explained that health officials have launched a campaign to vaccinate 2.9 million children in the affected areas of the province and are urging parents to get their children vaccinated.

Many Pakistanis, especially in rural areas, view vaccination campaigns with suspicion as a Western plot to sterilise Muslims. Distrust was heightened when the CIA used Pakistani physician to run a false hepatitis vaccine campaign in Abbottabad, in a bid to find Osama Bin Laden.

Polio endgame disrupted by extremism: read more from Science Editor Tom Clarke

In December, nine health officials working to immunise Pakistanis against polio were killed by militants opposed to the campaign. The Sindh province, the area worst hit by measles, has also been battered by repeated floods in recent years damaging hospitals and clinics.