Islamabad: At least 12 people were arrested on Tuesday for spreading misinformation about the polio vaccine on social media, hampering a vaccination drive and creating panic among parents as Pakistan launched its 2019 polio campaign.

The arrests were made after a series of videos went viral on social media claiming polio drops have poisoned children. A man in one video, identified as Nazar Muhammad from Peshawar’s Mashokhel area, alleges that the vaccine causes illness after which he dramatises the scene, telling the children to “fall asleep” as if they were unconscious. The children who were brought to Hayatabad Medical Complex were released soon after as doctors claimed they were in stable condition.

This fake ‘reaction’ to the polio vaccine emerged from one school in Peshawar and spread like wildfire, creating chaos across the city. The health department termed it “a coordinated conspiracy to disrupt the polio immunisation drive.”

Panic over anti-polio drive

The government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Pakistan polio department actively debunk rumours with frequent video updates on social media, visits to hospitals and press conferences.

KP Health Minister Dr Hisham Inamullah Khan said the inquiry report only “points towards panic”, adding that the school from where it all started is being investigated. “These schools had also refused the anti-polio campaign earlier. They did not want drops administered to their students,” he claimed.

Prime Minister’s Focal Person Babar Bin Atta said that action would be taken against the culprits.

“Panic was created to jeopardise the polio vaccination as part of a campaign and to put our children at risk of diseases. It is a criminal act and perpetrators will be held accountable,” Atta said.

No need to panic, vaccine is safest in the world

The Polio Eradication Department’s Kamran Ahmad Afridi said it’s natural for parents to get worried but there is “no need to panic” as the polio vaccine is “tested worldwide” and is among the safest in the world. Meanwhile, the KP government has formed a 10-member inquiry committee to probe the matter and submit a report within 48 hours. Officials confirmed the vaccination drive would continue until polio was completely eradicated.

Polio campaign 2019 hampered

The misleading videos have severely hampered the 2019 polio vaccination campaign that started on April 22 and which aims to protect 39 million children from the poliovirus.

“More than 100 houses that I visited today refused to vaccinate their children against polio as they are gripped by the fear and panic created by the fake videos” Zia ul Islam, a young polio worker from the Mamund area of tribal district of Bajaur, told Gulf News over the phone. “The videos have ruined years of dedicated efforts by polio workers.”

Two new polio cases emerge amid refusals

Amid the panic, refusals and false propaganda, two new polio cases were reported on Tuesday from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — bringing the total number of polio cases in the country to eight in 2019. The latest two victims of the virus are 22-month-old boy Hamza from Bannu and two-year-old girl Razia from North Waziristan.

Meanwhile, the current polio campaign has been temporarily suspended in some areas to ensure the safety of the polio workers. Provincial Health Secretary Farooq Jameel said that a fresh vaccination drive would be launched after parents’ trust is regained.

Why is polio still endemic in Pakistan?

Pakistan is one of three countries in the world, alongside Afghanistan and Nigeria, where polio is still endemic. In 2018, most polio cases reported in Pakistan were from tribal areas of KP and Balochistan. Many parents have misconceptions about oral vaccines, considering it a health risk and/or un-Islamic, but mostly due to ignorance and illiteracy, resulting in fewer vaccinations. However, the efforts to involve tribal leaders, religious leaders, schools teachers and community workers have had a positive result.

Polio is a highly infectious disease that attacks the nervous system mainly in children under five and can lead to permanent paralysis and death. As there is no cure, vaccination is the only known way to prevent polio.

Key Facts:

• Second Polio Vaccination campaign 2019 started on April 22

• More than 39 million children under the age of 5 to be given polio drops in April 2019

• 260,000 frontline workers will go door-to-door across the country

• Reported polio cases reduced from 306 in 2014 to 12 in 2018

• Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where polio is still endemic