Rumours Sabotage Anti-Polio Drive as Hundreds of Thousands Refuse to Immunize Their Children
PESHAWAR: Rumours that spread like wildfire and the resultant violence in some areas forced the authorities called off a two-day catch up for the vaccination drive last week in Pakistan. And the people behind these false rumours were the religious hardliners.
“I will stab anyone who comes to my house with polio drops,” Hameedullah Khan warned, refusing to be filmed or photographed as he shopped in a fly-blown bazaar on the outskirts of Peshawar, says Reuters in a report.
This episode was a result of the propaganda launched by the religious hardliners, raising a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated polio vaccines. And the result was a burned rural health centre, blocking of a highway and pelting cars with stones while medical workers being harassed and threatened.
It didn’t stop there as mosques made announcements that children were having cramps, vomiting and diarrhoea after they were given “poisonous” polio drops. Word went out on social media that some children had died.
Separately, two policemen guarding other vaccination teams and a medical worker were killed by militants in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.
Panicked parents rushed their children to hospitals, overwhelming health authorities. In Peshawar alone, about 45,000 children were brought to hospitals complaining of nausea and dizziness. Officials described it as mass hysteria, asserting there had been no deaths confirmed.
But the scale of the most recent backlash against a campaign to eradicate polio is something new for government officials, who worry that the suspicions and backward thinking of a hard-line minority has infected the wider public.
“The mistrust in one segment of society, that refuses vaccinations due to religious beliefs, is translating into the rest of the country, which is something not seen in the past,” Babar Atta, the government’s top coordinator in the drive against polio, told Reuters.
As a result of last week’s false rumours, families of hundreds of thousands of children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elsewhere refused to participate in the latest campaign to eradicate a virus that can cause paralysis or death.
“No drops for us in the future!” Saif-ur-Rehman, a father of eight, repeating the rumours that the vaccines were contaminated or expired.
“Even my son was saying: ‘The next time they bring polio drops to school, I am going to get up and run away from school’. I said, ‘Do that’.”
An inquiry found the false stories originated at two schools on the outskirts of Peshawar. Health workers seeking to vaccinate pupils from the Dar-ul-Qalam and Roza-tul-Atfaal schools had met with repeated refusals.
Investigators also identified and arrested a man seen in a video telling dozens of children to pose as if the vaccine had rendered them unconscious, Farooq Jameel, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s senior-most health official, said.
Police also arrested 16 other men, some of whom had threatened vaccination teams on the streets.
A provincial leader of a conservative Islamist party that officials suspected had some links to the schools’ owners denied any connection and went on to endorse the immunization program.
The global campaign against the disease over the past few decades has been a great success story, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting just 33 cases of polio worldwide in 2018.
But most of them were in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the danger is that so long as a single child remains infected the virus can quickly spread into polio-free countries and un-immunized populations.
There is no known cure for polio, but the disease can be prevented if children are given multiple treatments with the vaccine.
Nadia Gul, a housewife, is among the volunteer health workers who make up the vaccination teams. Two children in her close family are victims of polio.
Covering her face with a veil to talk with strangers, Gul spoke of the dangers she faces due to the heinous slurs propagated by ill-educated opponents, but she refuses to be cowed.
“We have fears in our minds and in our hearts, but we will not lose courage,” Gul told Reuters. “Our aim, the aim of all the polio workers, is that we end this scourge in our country, so that no child, God forbid, is crippled.”