(Repeats from Sunday, no change to text)
* Conspiracy theories undermine anti-polio fight
* Health workers afraid to go to work
* High stakes in fight against a crippling disease
By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec 23 Pakistani health
worker Bushra Bibi spent eight years trekking to remote
villages, carefully dripping polio vaccine into toddlers' pursed
mouths to protect them from the crippling disease.
Now the 35-year-old mother is too scared to go to work after
masked men on motorbikes gunned down nine of her fellow health
workers in a string of attacks this week.
"I have seen so much pain in the eyes of mothers whose
children have been infected. So I have never seen this as just a
job. It is my passion," she said. "But I also have a family to
look after ... Things have never been this bad."
After the deaths, the United Nations put its workers on
lockdown. Immunisations by the Pakistani government continued in
parts of the country. But the violence raised fresh questions
over stability in the South Asian nation.
Pakistan's Taliban insurgency, convinced that the anti-polio
drive is just another Western plot against Muslims, has long
threatened action against anyone taking part in it.
The militant group's hostility deepened after it emerged
that the CIA - with the help of a Pakistani doctor - had used a
vaccination campaign to spy on Osama bin Laden's compound before
he was killed by U.S. special forces in a Pakistan town last
Critics say the attacks on the health workers are a prime
example of the government's failure to formulate a decisive
policy on tackling militancy, despite pressure from key ally the
United States, the source of billions of dollars in aid.
For years, authorities were aware that Taliban commanders
had broadcast claims that the vaccination drive was actually a
plot to sterilise Muslims.
That may seem absurd to the West, but in Pakistan such
assertions are plausible to some. Years of secrecy during
military dictatorships, frequent political upheaval during
civilian rule and a poor public education system mean conspiracy
theories run wild.
"Ever since they began to give these polio drops, children
are reaching maturity a lot earlier, especially girls. Now 12 to
13-year-old girls are becoming women. This causes indecency in
society," said 45-year-old Mir Alam Khan, a carpet seller in the
northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.
The father of four didn't allow any of his children to
"Why doesn't the United States give free cures for other
illnesses? Why only polio? There has to be an agenda," he said.
While health workers risk attacks by militants, growing
suspicions from ordinary Pakistanis are lowering their morale.
Fatima, a health worker in the northwestern city of Peshawar,
said that reaction to news of the CIA polio campaign was so
severe that many of her colleagues quit.
"People's attitudes have changed. You will not believe how
even the most educated and well-to-do people will turn us away,
calling us U.S. spies and un-Islamic," said the 25-year-old who
did not give her last name for fear of reprisals.
"Boys call us names, they say we are 'indecent women'."
Pakistan's government has tried to shatter the myths that
can undermine even the best-intentioned health projects by
turning to moderate clerics and urging them to issue religious
rulings supporting the anti-polio efforts.
Tahir Ashrafi, head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, said
the alliance of clerics had done its part, and it was up to the
government to come to the rescue of aid workers.
"Clerics can only give fatwas and will continue to come
together and condemn such acts," he said. "What good are fatwas
if the government doesn't provide security?"
RISK OF POLIO RETURNING
That may be a tall order in Pakistan, where critics allege
government officials are too busy lining their pockets or locked
in power struggles to protect its citizens, even children
vulnerable to diseases that can cripple or disfigure them.
Pakistani leaders deny such accusations.
Politicians also have a questionable track record when it
comes to dealing with all the other troubles afflicting
The villages where health workers once spent time tending to
children often lack basic services, clinics, clean water and
jobs. Industries that could strengthen the fragile economy are
hobbled by chronic power cuts.
Deepening frustrations with those issues often encourage
Pakistanis to give up on the state and join the Taliban.
So far it's unclear who is behind the shootings. The main
Taliban spokesman said they were opposed to the vaccination
scheme but the group distanced itself from the attacks.
But another Taliban spokesman in South Waziristan said their
fighters were behind an attack on a polio team in the
northwestern town of Lakki Marwat on Monday. "The vaccinations
were part of "a secret Jewish-American agenda to poison
Pakistanis", he said.
What is clear is the stakes are high.
Any gaps in the program endanger hard-won gains against a
disease that can cause death or paralysis within hours.
A global effort costing billions of dollars eradicated polio
from every country except Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Vaccinations cut Pakistan's polio cases from 20,000 in 1994
to 56 in 2012 and the disease seemed isolated in a pocket in the
north. But polio is spread person-to-person, so any outbreak
risks re-infecting communities cleared of the disease.
Last year, a strain from Pakistan spread northeast and
caused the first outbreak in neighbouring China since 1999.
Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the World Health
Organization, said the group had been coming closer to
eradicating the disease.
"For the first time, the virus had been geographically
cornered," he said. "We don't want to lose the gains that had
been made ... Any suspension of activities gives the virus a new
foothold and the potential to come roaring back and paralyze
Condemnation of the killings has been nearly universal.
Clerics called for demonstrations to support health workers, the
government has promised compensation for the deaths and police
have vowed to provide more protection.
For women like Fehmida Shah, it's already too late. The
44-year-old health worker lived with her family in a two-room
house before gunmen shot her on Tuesday.
Her husband, Syed Riaz Shah, said she spent her tiny salary
- the equivalent of just $2 a day - on presents for their four
daughters. Even though the family was struggling, she always
found some spare money for any neighbor in need.
"She was very kind and big hearted. All the women in our
lane knew her," he said.
"The entire neighborhood is in shock. Pray for my daughters.
I will get through this. But I don't know how they will."
(Additional reporting by Imtiaz Shah in Karachi, Jibran Ahmad
in Peshawar, Saud Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Katharine
Houreld in Islamabad; Editing by Michael Georgy and Sanjeev