In Pakistan, Polio Makes A Comeback Amid Vaccine Boycotts

Polio makes a comeback amid vaccine boycotts in Pakistan. A polio vaccination campaign began back in the Spring. In April, a rumor spread that the vaccines were dangerous and making children sick. Hundreds of children were rushed to the hospital by concerned parents and thousands of people refused the vaccine. In the village of Ali Zai, an angry mob was formed and attacked a hospital, eventually burning it down. This violence then led to the suspension of the polio vaccination campaign in the region, an epicenter of polio in Pakistan. Polio is on the rise in Pakistan because of this large misinformation campaign which has people rejecting the vaccine. Additionally, Pakistan relies on a polio vaccine campaign that goes door to door offering the vaccine; the change in government in 2018, caused this campaign to falter.

Pakistan’s polio campaign was strong and effective for several years; it brought polio cases down from 306 in 2014 to 12 in 2018. According to Al Jazeera, Rana Muhammad Safdar, Pakistan’s coordinator of the National Emergency Operations Centre on polio eradication said that the change in government in mid-2018 was a huge obstacle. He said, “Whenever a government comes, they conduct transfers on a large scale…These people, they kept on changing like anything.” More detrimental to the vaccine rates was the misinformation campaigns. The first campaign was political; political parties tried to make the rising polio outbreaks a political issue. This resulted in vaccinators skewing their results. Safdar said, “When there is unnecessary pressure on them, and they feel that these are the kinds of results that [authorities] want to see, then they start providing those kinds of results, instead of focusing on real vaccinations.”

The director of the WHO’s polio eradication program in the area, Hamid Jafari, said, “The program had under-estimated the number of children [that] missed vaccination repeatedly in core polio infected areas.” The other misinformation campaign was directed against the vaccine. People were saying that the vaccine caused other diseases and led to health concerns. On this Safdar said, “They would take anti-vaxxer videos from Europe, then dub them in Urdu, professionally, and then they’d be promoted [online] and they would be timed so that they would circulate about a week before our immunization campaigns.”

The polio eradication campaign was largely successful before the change in government and the misinformation campaigns; therefore, with solid plans to get the campaign back on track, a renewed campaign could bring polio rates back down. The government is working to take down the misinformation ads from social media sites and other online platforms. The vaccinators who work to make sure every child gets a vaccine are commendable. They work in very dangerous conditions, especially since the misinformation campaigns started, and do everything they can to make sure no child is left behind. One vaccinator, Kainat Mohman, describes their job saying, “We try to make the impossible, possible.”

Today polio is endemic in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria; in 2019, Pakistan had 111 of the 125 reported cases. According to Al Jazeera, Pakistan’s polio cases rose to a five year high amid the misinformation and suspicions about the vaccine. There is also a new concern as to why some children are not being vaccinated: parents are not prioritizing polio vaccinations because there are many other dangers to their children that are of more concern. People have also been suspicious and concerned about vaccines coming from the West. This conspiracy came from the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination campaign that was used to verify the location of Osama bin Laden before he was killed in 2011. These conspiracy theories have not only led to more people refusing the vaccine, but also to vaccinators being killed or harmed. According to an Al Jazeera tally, 98 people have been killed in attacks on Pakistan’s polio campaigns since 2012.

Currently, there is a large movement trying to take the misinformation about polio vaccination off-website and social media. However, there is another problem that continues in regards to the polio vaccinations. They are now being used as a bargaining chip to get the Pakistani government to act on other issues. There is a large focus on eradicating polio and the people are using this to their advantage. One polio program official stated, “They see the importance [that the government] attaches to the polio vaccines, that is why they are making counter demands… They know that if they do not accept the polio drops, there will be pressure on government officials, and if the pressure comes then they will have to provide those other services.” Some Pakistani people see so many other problems around them and feel that the lack of government actions is reprehensible. They see people around them dying, not from polio but from other issues; therefore, they use the government’s concern over polio to their advantage.