PESHAWAR: The public hospitals of Peshawar on Monday were filled to capacity with over 25,000 children brought by their parents for check-ups after fake news spread that children were falling sick after taking anti-polio drops.
The rumours also caused riots, undermining inoculation efforts in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and all the way to Afghanistan where a similar drive started today.
The first day of the latest immunisation drive started like all the other drives in the city with polio workers started going door-to-door to administer polio drops. Some vaccinators went to different schools as well to vaccinate children.
However, a commotion started when some 25 children were brought to the Hyatabad Medical Complex (HMC) on Monday morning with attendants claiming that the children had fallen sick after they had consumed the anti-polio vaccine at a private school in the Mashokhel area of Badhaber.
The school has previously been marked for turning away vaccinators.
Believing the unauthenticated reports, an angry mob wielding clubs and sticks poured into roads and ransacked the Mashokhel Basic Health Unit.
The mob tore down the wall of the BHU compound and set the building on fire. A gas cylinder inside the building exploded during the incident.
A heavy contingent of police rushed to the BHU to control the situation.
Even as the police managed to control the rioters, they could do little about the fake news spreading.
By midday, the entire city was caught in the hysteria as people hauled their children in the sweltering heat to hospitals where rush caused a shortage of space and attendants were seen quarrelling with security staff.
People first rushed around 5,000 children to the HMC while around 5,000 children were taken to the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH). At least another 8,000 checked in at the Naseerullah Babar Hospital and another 6,000 at the Khyber Teaching Hospital, while 1,700 reported at Molvi Gee Hospital.
HMC spokesperson Tauheed Zulfikar said that the children who were brought to the emergency ward were not seriously ill with some complaining of dizziness while others of stomach ache and they were all sent home after administering them with first aid.
Meanwhile, at LRH, the rush of relatives and guardians, panicking because of the rumours, caused a traffic jam. Even doctors found it difficult to manoeuvre through the packed emergency wards and the hospital administration had to make repeated appeals to maintain order.
At the Naseerullah Babar Hospital, many parents had to stand outside the facility while doctors and paramedics could be seen assuring them that their children were fine and that seemed to be nothing wrong with them.
Amid the chaos, a doctor at LRH posted a video message on social media to explain that there was nothing to panic about.
“I am Dr Ameer Muhammad, assistant professor of the paediatric unit. Today I was in the casualty [ward] when a large number of children were brought in but thanks to Allah, the majority of the children did not have any significant symptoms. One child vomited while one child complained of stomach pain out of around 60 children,” he said in the video.
The parents had reported that the announcement had been made regarding the alleged reaction from the vaccine and they got scared.
Govt steps in
Later, Chief Minister Mahmood Khan took notice of the issue ordered an inquiry, with directions to submit a report within 24 hours.
K-P Health Minister Dr Hisham Inamullah, who addressed a news conference along with the PM’s Focal Person on Polio Dr Babar bin Atta, said that fake news about the polio vaccination reaction was an attempt to undermine the campaign.
He assured that they will make every effort to trace the origin of the rumour.
“The vaccine is made by a WHO-certified pharmaceutical company in Indonesia and supplied across the world, including Pakistan,” he said, adding, “Polio is a threat to all humanity. However, some negative elements are making propaganda against efforts to eradicate this crippling disease he said.”
EPI Coordinator Kamran Afridi also dispelled the impression that children suffered a reaction from the anti-polio vaccination, noting that there could be no such reaction to the vaccine.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 23rd, 2019.
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