Bill Gates has condemned violence against polio workers in Pakistan, saying the attacks are hampering efforts to eradicate the disease from the country, one of only three nations where polio remains endemic.
The billionaire Microsoft founder and philanthropist said the attacks – attributed to Taliban militants who say polio vaccinations are a US plot to sterilize the Pakistani population – are threatening to derail his plan to eliminate polio by 2018.
His comments come in a week in which a number of polio workers were killed by gunmen around Pakistan.
Mr Gates has channeled billions of dollars into tackling the disease through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Speaking to the AFP news agency, Mr Gates said: “The Pakistan violence is evil. The truth is the vaccine is to help kids. And spreading rumours and attacking the workers on this… those people don’t have justice and truth on their side.”
He also said that ongoing strife in Nigeria was posing a similar problem in that country. Afghanistan is the third country where polio remains endemic.
Earlier this month the World Health Organization announced that India, once home to the most number of polio sufferers, was now free of the disease after three years without a confirmed new case.
Of the three countries where it is endemic, only Pakistan saw an increase in cases in 2013, with 91 cases compared with 58 in 2012.
The WHO said 90 per cent of Pakistan’s cases were genetically linked to Peshawar which it said was home to the largest reservoir of a particularly virulent strain of the disease.
Polio vaccination workers in Pakistan, most of them women, have been repeatedly targeted by the Taliban.
The militants have prevented polio workers reaching remote tribal areas that border Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of youngsters have missed out on getting the vaccine.
On Wednesday, six police officers on their way to guard a polio team were killed by a roadside bomb in Peshawar. On Tuesday, three polio workers were shot dead in Karachi.
Dr Altaf Bosan, the head of the polio monitoring team that reports to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, told The Independent that a vast majority of polio cases are in “security vulnerable areas” such as the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtukhwa.
Members of various militant factions have long been weary of most forms of outside aid.
Their suspicions were heightened in 2011 when it emerged that the US had set up a fake vaccination drive near Abbottabad in a bid to lure out the family of the former Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden who was subsequently killed in a CIA operation.