Political transition and mass misinformation campaigns contribute to growing polio rates in Pakistan

3 January, 2020

Extracts from a news item and a comment from me below. Full text here: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/pakistan-polio-comeback-vacci...

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... mass misinformation campaigns were launched regarding the use of the vaccine, urging parents to refuse to give the drops to their children for fear of health concerns. "They would take anti-vaxxer videos from Europe, then dub them in Urdu, professionally, and then they'd be promoted [online]," said Safdar. "And they would be timed so that they would circulate about a week before our immunisation campaigns."...

This year has seen numerous boycotts, with thousands of families in the Kurram, Orakzai, Bannu, North Waziristan and Peshawar districts refusing to give their children polio drops unless their local needs are met...

"[We boycotted] because there was a lot of focus from the government on polio," said Khalil Wazir, a protest organiser in North Waziristan district. His village refused to give their children polio drops for eight months until their demands - for government compensation owed to them to rebuild their homes - were met...

"One day a woman died in our village from cold. Another was killed by a mad dog bite. Another died from a snake bite. We felt that our children were dying of heat, cold and other things, it was not polio," he said...

Mazhar Khan, a 32-year-old religious school administrator who had refused to give his three children the drops due to concerns about health implications: "We see all these diseases, diabetes, blood pressure, jaundice," he said, sitting with a team of polio vaccinators on a rope-bed in the winter sun. "These are the diseases we see most often here. As far as polio is concerned, I don't think there would have been a single case of polio in our whole neighbourhood. But to treat it, police are being brought here [to force us to take the drops]."...

"We have bigger problems than polio in our society, why is the government not solving those?"...

The polio programme in Pakistan has long been the subject of misinformation and rumours, with many linking it to an unspecified "Western" conspiracy to sterilise or otherwise harm Muslims. Many cite the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) use of a fake vaccination campaign through a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, to verify the identity of Osama bin Laden before the raid to kill him in 2011 as proof of these theories...

Since 2012, at least 98 people have been killed in attacks on Pakistan's polio vaccination campaigns, according to an Al Jazeera tally...

Out in the streets of Ali Zai, Kainat Mohmand is still trying to convince parents who had earlier refused the vaccine for their children to change their minds. There are no policemen here, despite the attacks in April.

"Usually, they look at us with suspicion," she says. "They ask me to clarify things for them, about the vaccine. Many of them get convinced, then."

She smiles, broadly, and adds: "We try to make the impossible, possible."

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The work of polio vaccine workers in Pakistan is profoundly important, profoundly dangerous, profoundly inspiring and humbling. Many health workers make sacrifices and endure hardship and personal risk in helping others, and none more so than polio vaccine workers in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. In 2015 a commentator wrote: "These workers are heroes who deserve one of the world’s highest honors — the Nobel Peace Prize." https://medium.com/@viewfromthecave/give-pakistan-s-polio-vaccine-worker... It would be unprecedented to give the prize to a whole cadre of health workers, but perhaps there is a way to recognise one or more workers (or an organisation) who could receive the prize on behalf of all others. There are surely other ways in which the country, and the world, can show our gratitude.

Best wishes, Neil

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HIFA profile: Neil Pakenham-Walsh is coordinator of the HIFA global health campaign (Healthcare Information For All - www.hifa.org ), a global community with more than 19,000 members in 177 countries, interacting on six global forums in four languages. Twitter: @hifa_org FB: facebook.com/HIFAdotORG neil@hifa.org