TIMERGARA - Two policemen were killed when unknown gunmen opened firing at a polio vaccination team near Lal Qala Markhani Bridge in Lower Dir on Wednesday, the latest in a series of attacks targeting eradication efforts in one of only three countries in the world where the disease remains endemic.

District Police Officer (DPO) Dir Lower Arif Shahbaz told this scribe by phone that two police constables Farmanullah and Special Police Official (SPO) Mukarram Khan left Basic Health Unit (BHU) Bishgram to provide security to a polio team but came under attack near Markhani Bridge in Maidan area resulting in their on-the-spot death.

“Two policemen were killed. They were shot with pistols [and] we do not know how many attackers there were,” said another police officer.

Police official Sultan Ghani said “The polio campaign has been suspended after the incident in the area.”

The local police conducted a search operation in the area but no arrest was made till filing of the report.

Local officials said the attack in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa district did not harm any health workers. There were no claims of responsibility for the deadly shooting.

Most of the 104 polio cases the country has reported this year were located in the province, which borders Afghanistan. The total number of cases in 2019 in Pakistan, the highest in the world, represents a dramatic spike compared to only 12 cases in the previous year. In 2014 there were 306 cases.

The government launched a five-day immunisation campaign on Monday last to vaccinate nearly 40 million children under the age of five years against the polio virus across the country of more than 200 million people.

Health Minister Zafar Mirza said that more than 260,000 polio workers have been deployed under enhanced police protection to accomplish the task. “The environmental sampling demonstrates that the intense virus transmission continues all across the country. Polio remains a national emergency for us,” Mirza acknowledged while launching the last immunisation campaign of the year.

In April, a similar polio vaccination campaign was suspended across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when false rumours regarding side-effects of the vaccine led a mob to riot, destroying a local health unit outside Peshawar.

During the current polio vaccination campaign, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government has engaged clerics, sports stars and showbiz celebrities broadcasting special messages to counter the disinformation campaign and urge parents to allow their children to be vaccinated.

“We cannot continue to accept this fact that we are among the two last countries in the world which are still struggling to eradicate polio,” Mirza stressed and resolved to make Pakistan polio-free in the coming few years.

Deadly attacks on polio teams have hampered eradication efforts in recent years in Pakistan, but officials attribute the latest outbreak of polio cases to the refusal of parents to allow their children to be vaccinated against the disease.

Militant groups, particularly in rural Pakistan, oppose the anti-polio campaign as a Western conspiracy to sterilise Muslim children.

The government has tried to counter those falsehoods with public education campaigns, recruiting Muslim religious leaders to reassure people that the vaccine only protects their children.

The involvement of a Pakistani doctor in helping US intelligence agents to locate the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden had fuelled suspicion of the anti-polio campaign, though attacks on vaccination teams pre-dated the 2011 killing of the Al-Qaeda leader in Abbottabad.

Afghanistan is the second polio-endemic country where officials have reported 26 cases so far this year. Polio has also been endemic in Nigeria but no case has been detected in the country since 2016.