Monstrous rumours stoke hostility to anti-polio drive

Mistrust in a segment of society is translating into the rest of the country


His bearded face was half-covered by a shawl, but Hameedullah Khan's fear and ignorance was on full display as he delivered a chilling message for anyone who tries to vaccinate his children against polio.

"I will stab anyone who comes to my house with polio drops," Khan growled, refusing to be filmed or photographed as he shopped in a bazaar on the outskirts of Peshawar, a city scarred by years on the frontline of militancy.

This dangerous hostility to immunisation teams flared last week after spread of rumours, raising a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated polio vaccines.

In Peshawar alone, about 45,000 children were brought to hospitals. Officials described it as mass hysteria, asserting there had been no deaths confirmed.

Killed by militants

It is easy to feed the fears of communities that feel under siege. Just last week, militants shot and killed a medical worker and two policemen guarding other vaccination teams in K-P and Balochistan.

"The mistrust in one segment of society, that refuses vaccinations due to religious beliefs, is translating into the rest of the country, which is something not seen in the past," Babar Atta, the government's top coordinator in the drive against polio said.

"I have been vaccinating my own children and will continue to give them polio vaccine till a certain age, but people have some misconception and doubts about polio vaccine, and the government needs to address their concerns," Abdul Wasey, secretary-general of Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said.

Nadia Gul, a housewife, is among the volunteer health workers who make up the vaccination teams. Two children in her close family are victims of polio.

Covering her face with a veil to talk with strangers, Gul spoke of the dangers she faces due to the heinous slurs propagated by ill-educated opponents, but she refuses to be cowed. "We have fears in our minds and in our hearts, but we will not lose courage," Gul said.

"Our aim, the aim of all the polio workers, is that we end this scourge in our country, so that no child, God forbid, is crippled."

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2019.

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