Deliberate exploitation of the lack of awareness of people, and the deliberate spread of misinformation can have tragic consequences. An example of this came to light last week when the Polio Eradication Initiative officials reported that a six-month-old child from Gulshan-e-Iqbal Union Council in Karachi had been disabled for life after the parents of the small boy repeatedly refused to allow polio drops to be administered to him. The parents have now admitted that they used to hide the child or send him away to relatives during polio vaccination campaigns to prevent the drops from reaching him. In some countries, the refusal to allow children to be vaccinated or receive medical treatment is a punishable offence. Laws to the same effect have been put in place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well. But laws are a weak weapon with which to fight mass ignorance and deliberate campaigns run by those seeking to protect their own interests at the cost of small children.
Already, as a result of such campaigns as well as fake news on social media, at least two polio workers have been killed this year in the country and the countrywide anti-polio drive has been called off. Experts now fear a sharp rise in polio cases across the country as a consequence. Already, well before the sixth month of the year is completed, 17 cases have been reported from across the country. Two of these are from Karachi. This compares to nine cases in 2018, with Pakistan succeeding after a massive effort over the past five years – supported by international efforts – to increase vaccination cover and bring down the number of polio cases in the country. Today, Pakistan, alongside Afghanistan, remains one of only two countries in the world endemic for polio. The existing situation suggests this is not likely to change any time soon.
If we want change to happen, we need to persuade people that refusals are not an option. By not allowing children to be vaccinated, parents place their lives and welfare in grave danger. Those who propagate misinformation over social media, mainstream media or from other forums need to be taken to task so that their distorted messages cannot lead to a crisis that threatens all children in the country and holds back Pakistan’s efforts to eradicate a disease which has over the years claimed thousands of victims. We see these victims in many places. But even this is not enough to hold back the rumours and myths which discourage vaccination. More surveys need to be conducted to ascertain what factors lead people to believe accounts which suggest polio drops are unsafe or a part of a Western conspiracy to harm Pakistani children. It is evident people accept these accounts as truths even in major urban centres. This is disturbing. Given the scale of the risk, a counter-strategy must be devised. Door-to-door visits to educate parents and explain the impact polio can have on lives have become necessary. These must be supported by drives run over public forums and at schools. Almost every other country in the world has succeeded in this, including nations with development indicators even lower than that of Pakistan. We must not allow the force of contrived lies to succeed and remember that wiping out polio is a task we simply cannot afford to fail in.