‘Polio programme failed to deal with recent disinformation campaign’

Updated April 29, 2019

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The official said one of the reasons the programme could not deal with such rumours and conspiracies was the absence of its technical head, Dr Rana Safdar, who has been sidelined. — AFP/File
The official said one of the reasons the programme could not deal with such rumours and conspiracies was the absence of its technical head, Dr Rana Safdar, who has been sidelined. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: It has become impossible to stop the circulation of fake videos, messages and propaganda against polio vaccinations on social media, and the polio vaccination programme failed to deal with the recent controversy over adverse reactions to the vaccine, an official from the Ministry of National Health Services (NHS) said on Sunday.

Read: Polio drive suspended across country after spike in attacks

The official said one of the reasons the programme could not deal with such rumours and conspiracies was the absence of its technical head, Dr Rana Safdar, who has been sidelined.

The programme is now running without a coordinator for the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC).

He added that the polio vaccination campaign is a strategic programme, and calculated measures should be taken to address this issue.

“Morbidity in children below the age of five is very high in Pakistan, and half a million children die every year. This means one child dies every minute; these deaths can be used againstimmunisation campaigns,” he added.

Removal of NEOC technical head prevented prompt decision on issue, ministry official says

Last week, students from a school in Mashokhel were taken to the Hayatabad Medical Complex in Peshawar claiming they were reacting badly to the polio vaccine.

Read: Peshawar police arrest man alleging anti-polio vaccines cause children to faint, die

It has since emerged that this was allegedly a performance against the polio vaccination campaign, and all the children are safe. Individuals suspected of involvement have been arrested and are facing legal action.

A similar incident occurred in Mansehra a few months ago, when a campaign began on social media blaming the death of a child on the polio vaccine.

A team from the vaccination programme then visited area and, upon investigating, found that the child had suffered from measles and recorded a statement from the child’s parents in which they said the death was not caused by the polio vaccine.

The NHS ministry official said that while print and electronic media have been responsible, “there is a major threat from social media, as fake videos and messages are circulated”.

He said that in the most recent case, social media claims were followed by announcements from nearby mosques telling parents to take their children to hospitals because the polio vaccine was causing reactions.

“Because of it, a crowd even burned a basic health unit,” the official added.

He said the polio vaccination campaign should have been suspended in the area immediately and an investigation launched. “But in this case it was decided to continue the campaign and, because of the strong response, less than 10pc of children in Peshawar were vaccinated.”

When asked why the programme had failed to handle this situation, the official said the NEOC’s technical head Dr Safdar, who ran the programme since 2014, was separated from the programme and there was no one to take prompt decisions on the rapidly changing situation.

“The government should learn from its mistakes and give polio workers confidence,” he said, adding that the campaign was suspended after three people — a lady health worker and two law enforcement officials — were killed.

When Dr Safdar was contacted, he said he was on leave for medical reasons. He added: “I have decided to join my principal position at the Disease Surveillance and Response Division at National Institute of Health so I will no longer be part of the polio programme.”

Senator Ayesha Raza Farooq, the prime minister’s focal person on polio under the PML-N government, regretted that Dr Safdar was removed from the programme.

“It is unfortunate that the technical team was changed after the changed in political leadership. We made a lot of gains during our tenure but all has been lost because of the recent controversy. The government, which is in power in the centre and in three provinces, should involve all the stakeholders and form one team to address the issue,” she said.

Senator Farooq said political intervention is needed, and religious circles should be involved to ensure anti-vaccine elements do not discourage people and disrupt campaigns.

The current focal person on polio, Babar bin Atta, said a strategy has been made to involve the media, religious circles and influential figures to ensure vaccinations are carried out during the next drive.

“As far as social media is concerned, we have written letters to Facebook and talked to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority to stop campaigns against vaccines. It is unfortunate that social media accounts are suspended whenever a person writes in favour of Kashmiri freedom fighters or even prays for the health of Yasin Malik.

“However, when we request that social media sites stop campaigns against vaccines, we are told that it is against freedom of expression. I suggest that double standards should be stopped,” he said.

When asked why Dr Safdar was no longer part of the programme, Mr Atta said new blood was needed in the technical department after the change in political leadership. He said it has been decided to appoint Dr Safi Malik from the NHS ministry as the new head of the NEOC, and he will take charge of the post soon.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2019