Pakistan’s Nationwide Campaign Against Polio To Continue Despite Violence

On April 22nd, Pakistan’s federal government launched a nationwide campaign against polio and has since managed to vaccinate more than 37 million children, approaching its goal of 39 million. Several news outlets claimed that the campaign was brought to an abrupt halt after a string of violent attacks against healthcare officials and the police officers guarding them. However, Babar bin Atta, the advisor on Polio Eradication to Prime Minister Imran Khan, corrected the rumors and stated that the campaign would carry on as scheduled.

Pakistan has faced immense resistance in its effort to eradicate polio from the country. Police officers protecting polio workers were killed in Bannu and Bunner, and on April 25th a gunman shot and killed a female polio worker while severely injuring another.  The World Health Organization states that Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are the only countries that still witness cases of polio even though the infectious disease has decreased by over 99% since 1988. The presence of the virus poses a significant risk since it can be easily transmitted to vulnerable children.

The New York Times suggested that the massive paranoia surrounding the vaccination campaign stems from the fundamentalist framework that sees it as a western effort to sterilize Muslims. In 2011, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used a vaccination team to track Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, an act which has strengthened opposition to the vaccination campaign. The campaign was further derailed by misinformation dispersed through social media platforms which claimed that the vaccines being used were expired. This exacerbated the issue since an angry mob attacked a government health facility in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The brutal attacks perpetrated by Islamic radicals coupled with the anti-vaccination propaganda on social media poses a dangerous challenge for the country since the virus seems to be spreading across major cities.

According to Al Jazeera, Mr. Atta stated that: “We expected [refusals], but we did not realize that people would panic and that something like this would also happen. We have to run very aggressive perception management campaigns [to combat misinformation]” he said. “We had planned for the next polio campaign to be at the end of June. That gives us some time to work on this.”

The biggest obstacle facing the people who have pledged to make the country free of polio is perception. The issues surrounding the vaccination campaign seem to be twofold: terrorize health officials and proliferate misinformation regarding vaccines. Militants are possibly targeting health workers to strike fear into them and coerce them to stop participating in the campaign. Similarly, the paranoia propagated by Islamic fundamentalists catches momentum on social media platforms convincing larger crowds of false information regarding vaccines. Thus, the government should significantly increase the security for polio workers and combat the misinformation campaign by a counter information movement using similar platforms. It should elicit evocative information in its messages which could gain traction and negate the relevance of the fake news surrounding vaccines.