THE effects of the harmful rumours that spread like wildfire during the anti-polio vaccination campaign a few months ago are really being felt now. With five new cases reported in KP, the total number of polio patients in the country has climbed to 53 — already higher than the figure that was expected to be announced at the end of this year. While polio has been eliminated in other parts of the world, Pakistan has the misfortune of being one of only three countries that still contains the virus; the other two being Nigeria and Afghanistan. But Nigeria is now on its way to being declared polio-free, while Pakistan is still struggling. When in 2017, the country counted its lowest number of polio cases, there was great optimism that Pakistan too was on the verge of being declared free from the virus once and for all. Now, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this battle will continue for a much longer period. And in order to be successful, it has to be waged alongside the struggle against anti-vaccine misinformation, disinformation and outright lies that are exacerbated with greater access to modern technology. The vast majority of all polio cases exist in KP, which has recorded a total of 41 cases this year. Meanwhile, Punjab has five cases, including three from Lahore; Balochistan has four; and Sindh has three. In 2018, eight cases of polio were recorded in KP. In contrast, Balochistan had three cases; Sindh had one; and Punjab had none. The sudden increase is largely being blamed on vaccine refusal by parents after widespread anti-vaccine propaganda was disseminated through social media, even by some mainstream media outlets, which strengthened the falsehood that polio was damaging for childrens’ health, or part of a Western conspiracy against Muslims.
After students in Badhber complained about feeling sick on being administered polio drops (the episode proved to be a hoax) during a province-wide vaccination campaign in April, there was an 85pc rise in vaccine refusals across KP. So, along with vaccination efforts on ground, there must be an aggressive countrywide campaign to counter these harmful myths. While the authorities have made some efforts in this regard, much more needs to be done, and action must be taken against those who propagate such nonsense as it has cost this country heavily.
Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2019