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Rumours fuel resistance to polio vaccines in KP

Updated April 24, 2019

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An Afghan national is administered the anti-polio vaccine at the Torkham border. ─ Dawn/File
An Afghan national is administered the anti-polio vaccine at the Torkham border. ─ Dawn/File

PESHAWAR: The polio vaccination campaign in many areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was halted as mass hysteria persisted on Tuesday following rumours that some children had allegedly suffered reactions, even deaths, because of polio vaccines, leading to refusal rate in thousands.

Police investigating an incident in which a basic health unit was damaged on Monday arrested a suspect for scaremongering and charged 12 others with setting it on fire. Also, a policeman assigned to a polio team for security in Bannu district was shot dead and two new polio cases from Bannu and North Waziristan were reported.

On Tuesday morning, a large number of parents in different areas of Charsadda district refused to have vaccines administered to their children, according to polio team officials. They said polio team members stopped the campaign at 10am when nobody was ready to let them give polio drops to their children.

Over 6,890 cases of refusals reported; policeman assigned to polio team shot dead in Bannu

They were asked to wind up their campaign because the Monday incident had swayed parents, who told the polio teams that they were not ready to risk their children’s lives.

On Monday, hospitals received terrified children from Badbher area in Peshawar, complaining of nausea and abdominal pain. Hundreds visited the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) with most released after treatment.

The doctors at LRH said it was psychological whatever it was that was impacting the children. Rumours that some children had died because of polio vaccines spread like wildfire in the city as children visited hospitals throughout the day, with mosques adding further grist to the rumour mills by announcing to not get the children vaccinated. The panic was further compounded by anti-vaccination videos which quickly began circulating on social media.

Chief Police Officer Qazi Jalilur Rehman said enraged people attacked a basic health unit upon hearing these rumours. He further said the issue of alleged reaction from polio vaccines emerged from one school.

Refusals, arrests

In Kohat, the focal person for the polio vaccination campaign, Dr Nadeem said 6,898 cases of silent and open refusals were reported on Tuesday whereas 105,000 got their children vaccinated voluntarily.

Another official, Dr Mohabbat Khan, told Dawn that 65 per cent of those who refused the anti-polio vaccines were Afghan refugees.

Late on Monday, a video by Nazar Mohammad, a resident of Mashukhel, in which he had alleged that the vaccines were making children unconscious, began to be widely shared on social media. However, another video emerged in which he is seen directing schoolchildren to feign unconsciousness inside a hospital.

Badbher police arrested him on Monday night and on Tuesday presented him before a local court, which remanded him into police custody for a day. The police told the court that Nazar tried to incite the public through a social media video. He will be presented before the court on Wednesday (today). Nazar was identified as a daily wage employee of the Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited.

Badbher police station also registered an FIR on the complaint of Dr Nusrat Shah, medical officer of Basic Health Unit Mashukhel. The doctor told the police that at around 10:30am on Monday, after hearing rumours that some children had fallen ill after taking polio drops an enraged mob led by some unknown people attacked the hospital, torched the equipment inside the premises and held hostage a polio team in a nearby primary school.

The FIR stated that at least 12 people who were prominent among about 400 rioters have been identified as Anwar Zeb, Akhtar Gul, Rehmanullah, Subhanullah, Waqas, Yousaf, Haider Ali, Malik Ilyas Khan, Kashif Khan, Adil, Haider and Jabbar, all residents of Mashukhel village. The FIR also identified Kashif Khan, Principal Darul Qalam Public School Mashukhel as the ring leader who sowed fear in public over polio vaccines. Police booked the suspects under several sections of Pakistan Penal Code including rioting and criminal conspiracy.

Shot dead, new polio cases

According to police officials, ASI Imran Khan was coming to regional health centre (RHC) Domail in Bannu district on Tuesday to escort a polio team. When he reached near the entrance gate of the hospital unknown miscreants riding a motorbike opened fire on him, said DPO Yasir Afridi. He was killed on the spot and the attackers managed to escape, he added.

Meanwhile, the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) for Polio Eradication notified two new polio cases from Bannu and North Waziristan bringing the total number of polio cases to eight this year. According NEOC, one child is a 22-month-old boy from Bannu district and the other is a 24-month-old girl from Tehsil Miramshah.

Focal person for the vaccination programme Dr Nadeem said the campaign has been extended till Thursday to address the refusal cases.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019