Police in Peshawar arrested a man on Tuesday after he allegedly spread misinformation about the anti-polio vaccine in a series of videos that went viral on social media, a day after hundreds of children in different cities complained of illness and were admitted to hospitals in the midst of a province-wide anti-polio drive.
Videos circulating on Twitter show a resident of Peshawar's Mashokhel area, Nazar Muhammad, in Hayatabad Medical Complex, where children from a school in Badhber were admitted yesterday with complaints of illness following administration of the anti-polio vaccine.
In the video, Nazar alleges that administration of the vaccine causes children to fall unconscious. Then he turns to a group of children standing next to him and orders them to "fall asleep". They then lie down on the hospital bed behind them as if they were unconscious.
When a boy gets up, Nazar tells him to "fall asleep" again, after which he lies down on the bed again.
In another video, Nazar is speaking to reporters outside, surrounded by a crowd of men. He alleges that some children in his video died after being administered the vaccine.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tweeted the videos with the caption: "EXPOSED: Watch how young innocent kids were made to lay down in hospital beds and pretend they’re suffering due to polio vaccination, to give a wrong message to masses regarding the #polio campaign."
KP and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas have long seen vaccine refusal cases. According to provincial officials and anti-polio campaign documents, suspicion about the vaccine stems from misconceptions about the oral polio vaccine (OPV) which have persisted since 2004, when obscurantist elements and militants in the area spread rumours that certain hormones were deliberately added to the OPV to make Muslim children sterile.
Panic over anti-polio drive
Panic spread across Peshawar yesterday after reports that 75 students at a school in Badhber ─ complaining of headaches, nausea and abdominal pain allegedly after being administered the anti-polio vaccine ─ were admitted to Hayatabad Medical Complex. Shortly after, doctors began releasing them, saying they were in stable condition.
Family members and area residents resorted to agitation in protest against the incident. They broke the doors and windows of a hospital during their protest, set a Basic Health Unit in the area on fire and held polio workers hostage for some time.
Panicked parents continued taking their children to hospitals for checkups till late at night ─ some 300 children visited Lady Reading Hospital ─ and mosques added further grist to the rumours by issuing intermittent warnings over their loudspeakers to not get children vaccinated, and that those who had must reach hospitals to avoid a reaction.
Most children were released after treatment, health workers said. The doctors at LRH said it was psychological whatever it was that was impacting the children. In Charsadda 800 children were hospitalised.
Read more: Lab tests show polio vaccine is not ‘Haram’
Deputy Superintendent of Police Saddar Sahibzada Sajjad told DawnNewsTV that a first information report (FIR) had been registered at the Badhber police station against identified individuals for setting fire to a Basic Health Unit and causing widespread panic by rumour-mongering.
DSP Sajjad confirmed Nazar Muhammad's arrest and said that further arrests would be made using videos of the protests and vandalism.
Police obtained one-day remand for Nazar from the court today.
KP govt to probe incident
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Health Minister Dr Hisham Inamullah Khan held a press conference in Peshawar last night to debunk the rumours about the vaccine. "We have an inquiry report and the only thing it points towards is panic. The school from where it all started, there should be an investigation against them. These two, three schools had also refused the anti-polio campaign earlier. They did not want drops administered to their students," he claimed.
His claim was echoed by Chief Police Officer Qazi Jalilur Rehman, who had said the issue of alleged reaction from polio vaccines emerged from one school.
The health minister added that a preliminary investigation had revealed there was no issue of the expiry of vaccines. "We are also investigating a batch of vaccines which we procured from an Indonesia-based manufacturing firm. The matter was blown by media out of proportions which swelled to a big crisis but in reality there is nothing to worry as all the children are safe," he said.
The Emergency Operation Centre of KP has formed a committee under the additional deputy commissioner to investigate the issue and submit its findings in 48 hours.
Prime Minister’s Focal Person Babar Bin Atta had said that action would be taken against those who created the rumours to damage the polio vaccination campaign.
"Panic was created to jeopardise polio vaccination as part of a campaign and to put our children at risk of diseases. It is a criminal act and perpetrators will be held accountable. There were no instances of diarrhoea or skin rashes on affected children," he explained.
He pledged that the vaccination drive would continue till polio was completely eradicated from the country. "The WHO-approved OPV used for eradication of poliovirus worldwide is safe for children and parents must have it administered to their children."