A hoax video showing children falling ill after polio vaccinations underlines the obstacles facing health workers for whom danger has become a way of life
Lucy Lamble in Karachi
Tue 14 May 2019
‘There was a lot of fear, but that has got better’: Khalida Nasreen has helped to recruit women from her community to work as polio vaccinators. Photograph: Khaula Jamil/Courtesy of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
It began with a rumour, a breathless video circulating on Facebook saying children in Peshawar had been taken ill after being vaccinated for polio.
Within hours, a second video emerged showing the same children being instructed to lie down and feign illness. But it was too late. The latest attempt to derail Pakistan’s formidable drive to eradicate polio had already taken hold, leaving thousands of parents panic-stricken and a government health facility partially burned down.
The man who orchestrated the alarmist video was arrested, but Babar Bin Atta, the prime minister’s focal person on polio eradication, was plainly exasperated.
“The man is a trouble-maker caught red-handed on video telling children to act as though they are ill,” he said. “The real enemy is social media.”
With three days to reach more than 9,000 children in the Mustafabad district of Karachi, workers going door to door are frustrated at having to deal with yet another swirl of misinformation. Yet, armed with essential vaccine drops and children’s vitamins – not to mention facts, smartphone videos and the endorsements from doctors, clerics and celebrities that have become an essential part of attempts to eradicate the centuries-old disease in Pakistan – they remain resolute.
Nationwide, a quarter of a million frontline workers are involved in efforts to vaccinate the 40 million children in the country under the age of five. Zahoor Jah, 55, a grandfather who lives locally, says the repeated drives can be tedious, especially in areas that aren’t well served by health clinics. But he hopes polio will go the way of smallpox.