Polio Cases Rise In Pakistan Amid Vaccination Misinformation Campaigns

Throughout 2019, Pakistan had faced challenges to its polio eradication efforts as a result of increasing anti-vaccination misinformation in the country’s most susceptible regions. Al Jazeera reports that Pakistan has had difficulty containing the spread of polio over the past year, and case tallies have reached their highest point in over five years. While many of Pakistan’s immunizers fight locally to spread truthful and scientifically-supported information about disease, illness, and prevention, large campaigns against vaccinations – polio in particular – substantially rival such efforts. One of the primary strategies of such anti-vaccination operations is to spread false rumors that children are fainting or even dying after receiving medical immunization, according to the New York Times. Varying theories concerning how to explain the development of conditions which allow for the spread of polio once again in Pakistan suggest political transition or even turmoil, social media’s pervasiveness, and local political bargaining between the government and the people.

Rana Muhammad Safdar, coordinator of Pakistan’s National Emergency Operations Center on polio eradication, attributes the challenge to a breakdown in governmental organization and strategy on the subject following the general election in 2018 which brought an entirely new party to power. As a result of a standardly chaotic transition period post-election, coupled with a growing vaccine-skeptic movement throughout the nation, “oversight of the teams on the ground dipped” and misinformation on the realities of the polio vaccine was thus allowed to spread with more prevalence than present previously, according to Al Jazeera. Safdar further describes the use of digital tactics by misinformation campaigns, stating, “They would take anti-vaxxer videos from Europe and dub them in Urdu, professionally, and then they’d be promoted. And they would be timed so they would circulate about a week before our immunization campaigns.” In related, however perhaps simpler terms, director of the World Health Organization’s polio eradication program Hamid Jafari advocates that perhaps the WHO’s own programs had difficulty in meeting vaccination demand in Pakistan. He states, “The program had under-estimated the number of children [that] missed vaccination repeatedly in core polio infected areas.”

Given that deliberate, targeted, and strategic misinformation plagues are, in essence, severe forms of intellectual, and thus biopolitical violence, polio’s 2019 performance in Pakistan serves as a national representation of the state of global politics at the close of the decade. While the bodies of children are used for corporate and political gain, or as leverage for basic rights in Pakistani communities, where do the global “leaders” in healthcare and infrastructure fare on the misinformation scale? Arguably not much better than Pakistan. In order to halt misinformation monopolies, there must be international standards for decency not only on political levels, but on corporate technological ones. Science must be respected, and civilians not lied to.

At the start of December, Pakistan had experienced ninety-one polio cases in 2019, while 2018 had concluded with only twelve, according to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy. The trouble began during April, when a false rumor was spread alongside a vaccination campaign for polio. Claims that drops were sickening children led to panic among those already vaccinated, and apprehension and refusal among parents considering immunization for their children, according to Al Jazeera. Overall, the international politicization of vaccination controversies is obstructing the successful implementation and retention of public health in the twenty-first century.

While Pakistan’s current struggle between medical science and media misinformation stands as a microcosm for the oppositions within numerous states across the world currently, the specifics of its current condition pose threats to the assumed stability of disease eradication as an assured indicator of progress. According to the New York Times, the virus, unconcerned by national borders, may very well spread into neighboring Iran, where the last recorded case of polio paralysis occurred nearly nineteen years ago.