Pakistani physicians live in fear after spike in deadly attacks

As the killing of Shiite medics spikes in Karachi, clinics have closed, straining the system and forcing medical staff to flee the country for their own safety

By Syed Raza Hassan  /  Reuters, KARACHI

Sun, Jun 21, 2015 - Page 9

Raza was waiting for his next patient when two young men walked into the consultation room, took pistols from a bag and shot him six times. Left for dead, the Pakistani physician was badly wounded, but somehow survived.

Raza, who gave only one name to protect his identity, is one of dozens of doctors to be targeted by Muslim militants and criminals in recent years, spreading dread among senior medics and putting pressure on Pakistan’s overburdened health system.

“I tried to duck by covering my face and I took the brunt of the bullets on my arms and fingers,” Raza said of the attack a few months ago in the southern port city of Karachi.

“One bullet got deflected by a stone-studded ring on my finger,” he told reporters.

He said the round otherwise might have hit his head.

Raza was initially treated at a Karachi hospital before he and his family went into hiding. Realizing that he needed specialist treatment to restore full function to his hands, he traveled to Australia for more surgery.

When he called friends to tell them that he and his family had arrived safely, they told him that another colleague had been killed.

A record 26 doctors were killed in Pakistan last year, police said, representing three times the number in 2010. Most were in Karachi, Pakistan’s teeming commercial hub of 20 million people, where militant violence and crime are common.

Of those attacked, a disproportionate number, including Raza himself, have been from Pakistan’s minority Shiite sect, target of frequent sectarian violence in the Sunni-majority country.

“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi activists revealed in interrogations [that] they target Shiite doctors,” said Khurram Waris, an officer of Karachi’s Counter Terrorism Department, referring to a Sunni militant group that targets Pakistan’s Shiite Muslims.

Senior physicians are relatively wealthy, making them vulnerable to ransom kidnappings, while security officials said militants also prize doctors as targets because they are well-respected members of society and easy to hit.

The two are often linked, since militants finance their operations through extortion, police officials said.

‘BRAIN DRAIN’

Medical groups said that unless the government can stop the killings, a trickle of physicians fleeing the nation could become a flood, undermining efforts to ensure Pakistan’s population of about 190 million has access to basic services.

More than 9,000 out of nearly 200,000 doctors registered with the Pakistan Medical and Dental Council, a regulatory body, have left Pakistan in the past three years.

The Pakistan Medical Association does not track why physicians leave, but said that fear of attack is a major factor.

Some medics who stay in Pakistan have fortified their offices.

Others, including Raza, have shut up shop entirely. He is considering seeking asylum overseas.

Pakistani Minister of National Health Services Regulation and Coordination Saira Afzal Tarar said that in addition to Karachi physicians emigrating, some in Quetta, another city prone to sectarian violence, are deciding to work in safer areas of the nation.

“As law and order is improving [in Karachi], we hope that things will get better,” she said. “We are trying everything in our power to improve the situation.”

The medical association did not have statistics on how many clinics had shut due to fears of violence or actual attacks.

IMPORTING DOCTORS?

The situation could become acute within 10 years, association general secretary Mirza Ali Azhar said.

“Pakistan may have to import doctors,” he said.

In one recent case, Azhar said a doctor was working in the operating theater when he received a call telling him that he would be killed as he left the hospital.

The physician fled to the airport in an ambulance, met his family there and they left Pakistan on the first flight.

Patients of medics who are killed or forced to flee can go elsewhere, but finding the right care in Pakistan is not easy.

The healthcare system relies heavily on private clinics and hospitals, which many cannot afford, and charitable services, while state spending on the sector is low.

“I found out Raza had been shot when I read it in the newspaper,” said one of the doctor’s regular patients, who declined to be named for security reasons. “I went to several doctors over the last five months, but did not find anyone I was happy with. Now I am visiting a doctor at a consulting clinic at a big hospital.”

Association president Idrees Adhi is among those who have been threatened. His family wants him to leave Pakistan.

“After years of struggle, I am being forced to leave this country,” the ophthalmologist said. “It will be a very painful decision, but I am seriously considering it.”