21/12/2012 10:03 GMT | Updated 20/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Health Workers on the Frontline in Pakistan

"Neither Pakistani customs nor Islam would allow or endorse this. Far from doing something wrong, these girls are martyrs for Islam because they were doing a service to humanity and Islam."

The words of Tahir Ashrafi, Head of the Ulema Council of Pakistan, who is today leading Friday prayers condemning the attacks on health workers in Pakistan.

The appalling murder of nine health workers in Pakistan, earlier this week, marks a watershed moment in Pakistan's history that must be condemned by all those that believe in democracy, freedom and human rights. For those that carried out these barbaric acts, heed my words: what you have done is unjustifiable and your cold blooded killing will do nothing but strengthen our resolve to ensure that our great country is not held hostage by adverse elements who act against the progress and prosperity of the citizens of Pakistan.

After Malala was shot and almost killed for challenging the archaic diktat that girls don't belong in school, we saw a global outpouring of support for the right of all children to attend school. The latest terrorist attack, this time against frontline health workers heroically leading the struggle against childhood disease, starkly illustrates the challenges that we must overcome to secure basic human rights for the citizens of Pakistan.

The various levels of corruption, racketeering, protection bribes, sectarian threats and drone attacks have created a cocktail of intrigue and mistrust amongst the Pakistani citizens at best, and murderous behavior at worst! However, justifiable opposition to these problems cannot and should not ever be used to defend the murder of innocents.

The frontline health workers killed for saving lives were part of a polio campaign, which is a globally successful grassroots health programme, led by local people and backed by organisations including the WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International and the Gates Foundation. The amazing news is that despite the huge challenges, Pakistan is making progress.

On polio alone this year, Pakistan has now gone seven months without a single case of one of the two remaining strains of polio and we have seen an impressive two thirds reduction in the number of polio cases. This is a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider the number of IDP's moving from the Northern conflict zones and the floods which recur year on year. Yet, with the suspension of the vaccination programme, after nine murders in two days, we risk the lives of children who should have been freed from this terrible disease. Furthermore, if we don't totally eradicate the disease and continue our efforts in the three countries where polio remains endemic - Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan - then projections show that we could return to a stage where 200,000 children are paralysed by polio every year.

It is great to see polio champions like Aseefa Zardari, Pakistan's Ambassador for Polio Eradication, and Shahid Afridi, the global cricket superstar, come out immediately to defend health workers and the need to end this preventable childhood disease. Politicians, UN agencies, religious leaders, the media and individuals are also speaking out; however we must ensure that their words translate into actions. All leaders of the affected communities and everyone concerned must do their utmost to protect health workers and create a secure environment so that we can meet the health needs of the children of Pakistan.

To reiterate the words of Jinnah: "My message to you all is of hope, courage and confidence. Let us mobilise all our resources in a systematic and organised way and tackle the grave issues that confront us with grim determination and discipline worthy of a great nation." If we give up on educating girls, if we stop protecting health workers and vaccinating our children against diseases like polio, we give up on a better future for our children.

Nothing will shake my deep rooted love and hope for Pakistan and I'm determined that tomorrow will see breakthroughs in our combined battle to secure a safer Pakistan. That's why I promise to do all that I can to push leaders and to support and protect health workers on their courageous work to save children's lives. Join us and colleagues to keep our health and education services accessible to the citizens of Pakistan. Wishing you all a peaceful New Year!