Squatting in the narrow, dusty lanes of a Karachi neighborhood, Gulshan Ahmed squeezes open the mouth of a 4-year-old girl. Two police officers flank her, guns gripped tightly, their eyes scanning the large group of people who watch as Ahmed tips two drops of the polio vaccine into the girl's mouth. Ahmed, 21, is part of Pakistan's Lady Health Worker program, a government-run corps of some 110,000 women trained to bridge the gap in health care for the country's poorest residents. One of its key responsibilities is immunizing children against polio—a dangerous job in Pakistan, where members of some militant groups, including the Taliban, believe vaccinating children is part of a Western conspiracy to sterilize the Muslim population. Since 2012, more than 30 health workers have been killed for administering the polio vaccine. "The night before I give drops, I don't sleep," says Ahmed, who works in one of Karachi's most volatile areas. "Every time I leave the house, I worry that I will be gunned down." But despite the threats, a March 2014 vaccine drive alone targeted 7.6 million children for immunizations. Since 1974, a worldwide effort has been under way to eradicate polio, which can cause paralysis or death. Pakistan is one of only three countries (the others are Afghanistan and Nigeria) where the virus is still spreading.
In response to the attacks, the Lady Health Workers have been clamoring for better security and higher pay. Currently, the workers make about $2.50 a day. Many have stopped working because they are too terrified to risk their lives for so little money. Ahmed plans to keep her job, even with the risks. "My brother was crippled by the disease, so I know how badly it can affect lives," she says.