The viruses win

29 Apr 2019


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

HAD Newton lived in these times, he may have added another law of physics to his list, which may have gone something like: ‘A lie can circle the globe twice before the truth has even put its pants on.’

While he would undoubtedly have phrased it better, proof of this law was seen recently in Peshawar where, as soon as the latest round of the anti-polio campaign began, a campaign against the campaign also started. There was mass panic as reports came in that children who had been administered the polio vaccine had fallen sick, and that some had even died.

Like wildfire, these reports spread through the city and up to 3,000 children were rushed to hospital, polio workers were harassed and threatened and a basic health unit was set on fire. Luckily, thanks to the efforts of a Dawn News reporter, the truth quickly came to the fore in the form of a video in which one of the main culprits behind the panic was seen commanding children to lie down as if they were unconscious.

Subsequently, there came an inquiry report from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government which made it clear that the same batch of vaccines used in Peshawar was also used in Abbottabad, Nowshera, Tank, Kohat and all seven districts of Malakand division without incident. Even within Peshawar, no students belonging to government schools who were administered the vaccine reported any issues; the panic started from a few private schools such as Dar-ul-Qalam and others where, it emerged, a well-planned conspiracy was hatched to discredit the campaign.

More than 700,000 families refused to vaccinate their children in KP.

The detailed inquiry report names names, including those of the schools and also local quacks, residents and nazims who all played a role in fanning the flames they themselves had lit. But despite the video that emerged, despite the report and despite the numerous clarifications from doctors that no child actually fell ill, the damage has been done.

Polio officials from KP report that more than 700,000 families refused to vaccinate children, a steep rise from the 57,000 refusals seen last month. In Peshawar alone, refusal cases rose 79 per cent thanks to this propaganda. Worse still, one polio worker was shot dead in Chaman and another seriously injured, and now we hear that the federal government has indefinitely suspended the campaign and, in an unprecedented move, even the post-campaign evaluation. Why would this happen even when the truth had come out? For that please refer to the aforementioned law about the physics of fake news.

The campaign against the campaign wasn’t limited to stage-managed scares and rumours, it was also given space on at least one talk show. In this show the host decided to wow his audience with his undoubtedly top-notch research on the dangers of the polio vaccine.

To support his point, he invited one Jane Orient as a guest, who is the spokesperson of the very official-sounding Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Ms Orient was asked leading questions about her organisation’s stance against mandatory vaccinations and the dangers they believe vaccines pose which, in their view include paralysis, autism and death.

Now, while the organisation may look legitimate it is in fact an extreme libertarian group which uses science and medicine as a vehicle for its politics. Among other things, it is also active in HIV and AIDS denialism and its journal the also-official-sounding Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons is a leading source of pseudoscience.

Moving on, the anchor then cites someone called Raymond Francis who has similar views about vaccines. This noted quack also believes cancer can be prevented simply through a healthy diet and vitamins.

He also selectively quotes Jonas Salk — the inventor of the polio vaccine — as saying that the vaccine has led directly to cases of paralysis in the United States. What is not mentioned though, is that Salk said this in reaction to the ‘Cutter Incident’ in which a badly manufactured batch did indeed lead to paralysis and polio among those administered the dose. This was in 1955, shortly after the vaccine was successfully tested, and led to greater oversight on vaccine manufacture.

He also cites a discredited and debunked report claiming that in India, the Gates Foundation’s anti-polio campaign had caused “47,500 cases of paralysis death”. Again, this claim was thoroughly investigated by the World Health Organisation and found to be false. Surely, the learned host is aware of all this but perhaps chose to ignore the facts that didn’t suit his views.

Given that this is nothing less than a national emergency, one wonders where the condemnation of such elements is? Where are the ‘patriots’ when it comes to such malicious propaganda that threatens the very future of our children? Where, I must ask, is the vaccine against such viruses?

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2019