A Crippled Mindset: How Fake News is disrupting the polio campaign

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Despite being one of only 3 countries in the world which has yet to eradicate polio, Pakistan and parts of its society remain in the dark about the importance of the vaccine which is needed to prevent little children from succumbing to the virus.

While a lot may be attributed to ignorance on vaccinations due to lack of information, the graver concern now is the misinformation campaign that is decimating the credibility of the anti-polio campaign, using conspiracy theories to scare people, and is now resulting in targeted attacks and killings of the campaigners. This year has been scarier than ever, with the prevalence of fake news and disinformation rife in the Pakistan online space.

Soon after the government kick started its 3-day Polio vaccination campaign on 22nd April 2019, rumors became rife that a large number of children had suffered reactions, even deaths, because of polio vaccines in parts of KP.

A video also started circulating on social media that showed dozens of children lying unconscious in hospitals.

In another video a man identified as Nazar Mohammad, a resident of Mashukhel accused that the polio drops had made hundreds of children ill and some of them had already died in his village.

These videos went viral in online space and also made it to electronic media, creating mass hysteria in the province and across the country.

Hospitals received terrified children from across Peshawar, complaining of nausea and abdominal pain. Hundreds also turned out at the Lady Reading Hospital (LRH) with similar symptoms. The doctors however, discharged them after initial checkup, saying that the children suffered no reaction but only panic.

Doctors made it clear that there were no known side effect of the vaccines and that parents were only panicking. However, these assurances did little to bring down the vaccination refusal rates in the province which hit all time high around the country.

Doctors said 65% of the refusals in KP came from Afghan refugees.

As the fake news spread, it started inciting unrest in the area. An enraged mob burned down a Basic Health Unit in Mashukhel while a police ASI Imran Khan who was escorting a polio team in Bannu was shot dead.

All this damage by just one video that’s spuriousness was soon exposed by another video.

The video showed Nazar Mohammad, the lead character in the earlier video, maneuvering the entire act of children feigning unconscious. At the start of the video, Nazar can be seen telling, how the polio drops had made the children sick. As soon as the camera pans, albeit at the ‘wrong time’, the children are seen all hale and hearty and standing on their feet. Here, Nazar quickly signals them to get into character and they all fall back on the beds, pretending to be unconscious.

This video exposed the entire propaganda campaign against the anti-polio drive. The KP police arrested the culprit and put him behind the bars.

But the damage had been done and decades of struggle by diligent polio workers in the face of life threats as well as the government’s resolve of a polio free Pakistan had been compromised. This unfortunate incident highlighted the impact of fake news in real time.

Later, an inquiry committee investigating the case found nothing wrong with the vaccines. It identified the perpetrators behind the propaganda campaign, including owners and administrative staff of a number of local schools, religious leaders and members of health department who colluded to spread panic and stir controversy around the crucial vaccination.

The incident has dealt a serious blow to Pakistan’s efforts against polio and has further endangered our brave and diligent polio workers. Just this morning, another female polio worker has been gunned down while another injured in Chamman, Balochistan while performing their duty.

Let’s pray that nothing undermines our shared dream of a polio free Pakistan, not even fake news. Let’s pledge to share only authentic and verified information online, so that both fake news and polio could be eliminated from the country.

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