Pakistani parents reject hardline anti-polio vaccine narrative

By Ashfaq Yusufzai

A health worker on August 31 administers oral polio vaccine to a child in Bannu District. It has recorded the highest number of cases in Pakistan so far this year. [KP Government]

A health worker on August 31 administers oral polio vaccine to a child in Bannu District. It has recorded the highest number of cases in Pakistan so far this year. [KP Government]

PESHAWAR -- Parents are rejecting claims by militants and fear-mongers that polio vaccination is unsafe for children, as thousands more were inoculated this summer.

"I regret my previous decision of not administering polio drops to my two children because I was under the impression that it was a ploy used by non-Muslim countries to cut down our population," said Muhammad Shakoor, a vegetable seller from Mashokhel village, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

Mashokhel was at the centre of an anti-vaccination hoax that caused mass hysteria in April, when a video of children appearing to fall ill after receiving the oral polio vaccine (OPV) went viral.

Authorities arrested at least one man on charges of staging the video.

Doctors examined more than 25,000 children and concluded that none had suffered an adverse reaction from the vaccine.

Following that incident, the government increased public awareness campaigns on the safety and efficacy of the polio vaccine to debunk misinformation spread online and otherwise by the Taliban and anti-vaccine lobby.

"I now understand that the OPV drops are extremely important to safeguard our children against disabilities," Shakoor said.

Raising awareness

Rafiq Ahmed, a schoolteacher from the same area, rejected the anti-vaccination propaganda and brought his four children for immunisation during a vaccination campaign launched August 26.

The campaign targeted 6 million children in 29 districts of KP.

"There is awareness among the public after the incident in which children were asked to play ill and land in the hospitals," he said. "Now, there is no ambiguity that vaccination is meant for the safety of children."

"Our prayer leader has been telling us that it is our religious duty to ensure the vaccination of our children, not only against polio but against all childhood ailments," he said.

The awareness campaigns are seeing results, according to KP Director of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation Muhammad Saleem.

"We have brought down refusal cases from 800,000 in April to 200,000 in August, which is a clear indication that parents have begun rejecting the anti-vaccine propaganda," he said.

As part of the awareness programmes, authorities held discussion groups with religious elders and community members, health workers underwent communication training and the media was involved to address public misconceptions, Saleem said.

"There is a total change in our strategy to address the refusal issue, which is paying off," he said.

"We hope that more parents will reject the anti-vaccine propaganda and will agree to vaccinate their kids in the next drive scheduled for November."

Wiping out polio

Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the only two countries where polio is endemic.

Of the recorded 72 cases in Pakistan in 2019 so far, there are 53 in KP, eight in Sindh, six in Balochistan and five in Punjab, according to KP Director General of Health Services Arshad Ahmad Khan. Afghanistan has 16 recorded cases this year.

More than 90% of the children who contracted polio had missed vaccination because of anti-vaccination propaganda or fear of Taliban militants, he said, adding that Taliban militants have killed 70 health workers and police officers in polio-related incidents since 2012.

Riasat Bibi, a vaccinator in Bannu District, said she was undeterred by militants' threats and would continue to work to immunise all the children in her area.

"We cannot leave our children at the mercy of the terrorists who want to harm children's health," she said.

Elaborate security arrangements made by the police have been a big boost for the success of the vaccination campaigns, she said. "Due to their fear of the police, the terrorists do not dare to hit our workers."

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