IT was supposed to be polio’s final stand. Anti-polio campaigners were optimistic that this winter’s drive — the final door-to-door anti-polio vaccination campaign of the year — would also be the last in eradicating the virus from Pakistan once and for all. The prime minister restated his commitment to a polio-free Pakistan in a meeting on Nov 9 with provincial chief ministers, chief secretaries and members of the military in attendance. Starting from Dec 10, the countrywide campaign kicked off with the aim of administering drops to 38.72m children under the age of five — 19.2m in Punjab, 8.9m in Sindh, 6.8m in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 2.53m in Balochistan, 0.347m in Islamabad, 0.237m in Gilgit-Baltistan, and 0.7m in Azad Kashmir. The campaign was in coordination with Afghanistan to ensure children on the move between the borders were also administered drops.
But then came the news of the death of an infant in Haripur. She had been given polio drops on Nov 30. According to an inquiry report, she died of pneumonia on Dec 2, but a social media campaign blaming polio vaccines for the child’s demise had already taken off. Owing to the widely shared propaganda, there has now been a reported 25pc increase in vaccine refusals in Islamabad alone. Shockingly, many of the refusals came from educated, middle-class households. Once again, efforts to eradicate polio have been hampered by sinister disinformation campaigns and the paranoia of uninformed minds. Not only does it risk the health and well-being of other children, it also points to another disturbing trend in our society (or perhaps all modern, technologically driven societies): the spread of fake news and disinformation. It is disheartening to note that despite all the progress made over the years, despite all the attempts at educating the public, and despite all the lives of polio workers and security personnel tragically lost in the state’s efforts to eradicate polio, we are still far from reaching the goal of a polio-free Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2018