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Anti-Vaccination Propaganda Disrupts Polio Eradication Efforts In KP

PESHAWAR: Pakistan is one of three countries that have failed to eradicate polio virus irrespective of the advancements made in the field of medicine and vaccination.

While most countries have successfully controlled the transmission of the crippling polio disease, a recent surge in polio cases reported in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has forced the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other related agencies to readjust their approach towards eradication of the disease, reported Express Tribune.

According to experts, the challenges faced by the authorities in controlling the crippling disease, which can cause nerve injury and paralysis in its severe form, have become huge due to ineffective polio campaigns, lack of trained professionals, spread of false rumours against the vaccine, and fake markings on the fingers of children to trick vaccination teams.

Due to these reasons, new polio cases have been reported every week from the south and eastern districts of KP. The situation is even worse in the tribal areas where families refuse to administer polio drops to children while most displaced families find it hard to vaccinate their children in the absence of a permanent address.

According to the Polio Emergency Operation Centre (PEOC), a total of 62 polio cases have been reported from across the country in the ongoing year. Out of these, around 46 cases surfaced in KP and the merged tribal districts, five were reported in Punjab, four in Balochistan and six in Sindh. The highest number of cases surfaced in KP’s Bannu district where 22 children got affected by the virus.

Rumours Against Polio Campaigns

In April, posts and videos shared on social media gave rise to rumours that polio vaccine had poisoned children. The misinformation campaign resulted in rioting by angry mobs in KP which also claimed the lives of three polio workers.

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According to the technical focal person for the polio eradication programme, namely Dr Imtiaz, the fake video supposedly made in the Mashokhel area has majorly dented polio campaigns in sensitive areas.

“In that video, children can be seen suffering from reactions after they received polio vaccine,” he explained.

Dr Imtiaz further said, “The incident presented the polio eradication drives in bad light, due to which parents have shown reluctance to vaccinate their children.”

Ever since that incident, a growing number of parents have refused to get their children vaccinated against the polio disease. According to estimates from January this year, around 60,959 families refused polio vaccination in the province.

Similarly, around 32,311 refusals were registered in February, at least 78,961 in March, around 908,381 in April and 69,920 families denied to get their children vaccinated in June. In light of these numbers, all efforts made by the authorities concerned could not rescue the campaign from failure due to a continuing misinformation campaign.

The rumours in connection with polio virus also spread in urban centres like Peshawar, where panicked parents were seen rushing their children to hospitals. Meanwhile, protestors also torched a Basic Health Unit (BHU) in Mashokhel village.

According to Dr Imtiaz, the KP government has so far spent over Rs7 billion on the ongoing polio eradication campaign.

Growing Challenges

Pakistan’s war against the crippling disease currently faces many challenges. The progress made by the country for the eradication of the disease has been hindered by violent attacks on polio health workers and growing resistance from parents.

According to a lady health supervisor from Peshawar, namely Qazi Mussarat, most polio teams face threats and abuse from the communities they visit. “People refuse to open their doors for us,” she added.

Nevertheless, these challenges have failed to dampen the spirits of Mussarat and her team in their fight against the polio disease.

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Earlier this year, a nationwide vaccination drive was stopped until further notice after members of a polio eradication team were gunned down in two separate attacks.

“When we leave our homes in the morning, none of us can say with surety whether we would return home safe,”Mussarat said with a dejected voice.

Polio campaigns have long been viewed with suspicion in most parts of Pakistan where hardline clerics believe that the polio vaccine is part of Western efforts to sterilise the Muslim community.

Such deep-rooted suspicions among the general public puts the lives of polio workers in danger, who otherwise act as the first line of defence against the crippling disease.

Role Of Parents

Support from parents is necessary to put an end to polio virus and to enable us to win the long battle that the country has been fighting against this menacing disease.

“I was scared to vaccinate my children after seeing the video on social media. But after talking to a lady health worker, I am now confident that vaccines will protect my children against polio and other diseases,” said Toheed Bibi, a mother of two.

In order to effectively counter anti-polio propaganda, successive governments in the country have carried out many awareness campaigns to put to rest the concerns of parents, who otherwise refuse to vaccinate their children due to unfounded fears.

Another problem faced by the campaign is that non-compliance by parents often go unreported due to the difficult circumstances under which polio workers have to carry out their duties, especially if they have to go against their own kith and kin.

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Speaking on the condition of anonymity, an anti-polio worker said, “In the aftermath of the Mashokhel incident, the number of parents who refused polio vaccination for their children has increased at a fast rate.”

Renewed Efforts

The PEOC and students from the University of Peshawar have launched an investigation into the rise of polio cases in Bannu district, where most children’s fingers have been marked with the same indelible ink that is used by members of the vaccination teams. It merits mention here that at least 20 new cases of the disease have surfaced in the area in the ongoing year.

University of Peshawar Criminology Department head Dr Ibrar Khan said, “Our study would reveal the culprits who are behind the fake polio vaccination markings in Bannu.”

As part of the study, students belonging to the district and who are aware of local culture and norms would be dispatched to their respective communities to convince residents to allow health workers to administer polio vaccine to their children.

In this respect, Dr Khan said, “As part of our campaign, focus group discussion would be conducted to disseminate information about the disease and its eradication.” Eventually, the campaign would be extended to other parts of the province as well, he added.

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