Data from provincial health department comes amid massive jump in polio cases between 2018 and 2019
Pakistan has experienced a devastating rise in the number of reported polio cases over the past year, a setback that can at least partially be attributed to over a million parents in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated against the deadly virus.
A report published in daily Express Tribune cites data from the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Health Department as showing that, in 2019, 1,089,087 parents refused to allow health workers to administer the polio vaccine to their children. The highest number of refusals—694,984—occurred in April.
The April boost is likely attributed to an outbreak of hysteria over the vaccine after rumors spread of children being poisoned by the vaccine, resulting in vomiting and loss of consciousness. The since-debunked rumors led to thousands rushing to hospitals to get their vaccinated children examined, while those who had yet to receive vaccinations rejected them en masse. Authorities said dozens polio workers were beaten, stoned, and harassed following the spread of the fake news, with rioters even burning one health clinic to the ground.
Thus far, 111 cases of polio have been reported across Pakistan in 2019. Of these, 79 were reported from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 17 from Sindh, nine from Balochistan and six from Punjab. Tribune has reported that authorities expect this number to rise further before the year’s end.
“Negative propaganda against the polio vaccine… had a significant impact in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa,” a senior official told Tribune. He said the department had sought out the cooperation of religious scholars and political leaders to help dispel propaganda against the vaccine.
Polio is endemic in only three countries in the world—Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. Pakistan has boasted great strides in bringing the disease under control prior to the election of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government. According to independent reports, the incumbent regime replaced senior officials heading the anti-polio efforts despite vows to international donors against doing so. This loss of continuity widened existing loopholes in vaccination campaigns. Reports of vaccinators earlier this year administering a strain of the poliovirus that had been eradicated from Pakistan five years ago—resulting in a new outbreak—have also prompted backlash against health workers.