Anti-polio panic

Updated April 24, 2019

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PANDEMONIUM gripped KP amidst a province-wide polio eradication drive, threatening to stop this critical campaign in its tracks — which was ultimately the agenda of those who instigated the mass hysteria.

Thousands of children were rushed to hospitals by their panic-stricken parents on Monday after malicious rumours of adverse reactions to the oral polio vaccine were disseminated over community and mosque loudspeakers, and via WhatsApp and other social media platforms, and picked up and reported, uncritically and without verification, by sections of the mainstream media.

The fake news was soon exposed as a total, wilful fabrication in footage that soon emerged, but disinformation had already been spread, precisely because it fed into misconceptions about the OPV that have persisted despite the best efforts of public officials to dispel religious and medical concerns.

And though public officials scrambled to calm the public, holding a press conference within hours of the emergent crisis, by then, far too much damage had already been done.

In Mashokhel, where the rumour mill apparently originated, the local health unit was torched by rioters, and across the province, streets and hospitals were overwhelmed by a terrified public.

In the days ahead, there may be severe short- and long-term repercussions. Only yesterday, a police ASI assigned to a polio team was killed on his way to report for duty, and two new cases of the polio virus were detected in the province.

That a few malevolent individuals could hijack the vaccination drive, thus undermining the effort, dedication and courage of polio workers, is proof of how tentative the gains have been in building public confidence in vaccinations.

There are already doubts about the extent of coverage this polio drive is able to achieve in the face of what has transpired.

The government must now examine measures to anticipate the possibility of fake news proliferating via social media, which can spread like wildfire in the absence of basic digital literacy among the masses.

The mainstream media, however, should have known better. For years, it has reported on the lives lost — children who succumbed to the virus, and workers to the attacks of obscurantist elements — and the disease burden on the country.

There must be a wholesale adoption of strict coverage protocols recognising the sensitivity, fragility and security concerns of the anti-polio campaign. This is a dire setback, but it must not be allowed to derail the fight to eradicate this crippling, deadly disease once and for all.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019