Authorities in Pakistan arrested a man on Tuesday for allegedly disseminating false rumors on social media that the polio vaccine led to fainting and vomiting, a move that prompted concerned parents to rush 25,000 children to the hospital and a mob of about 500 people to set fire to a local health center.
According to the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency, the mob also held polio workers from the health center, identified as the Basic Health Unit, “hostage for some time.”
Along with Nigeria and neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan is considered one of the last polio bastions in the world.
The unfounded fears came as health workers were carrying out a three-day vaccination campaign in Pakistan’s volatile Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), which lies along the Afghanistan border and serves as a sanctuary for the Taliban and other jihadi groups. These groups, according to the Telegraph, claim the vaccine is a Western conspiracy to harm or sterilize children.
Saddar Sahibzada Sajjad, the deputy superintendent of the local police, indicated to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that authorities filed a police report “against identified individuals for setting fire to a Basic Health Unit and causing widespread panic by rumor-mongering.”
Sajjad confirmed the arrest of Nazar Muhammad for spreading the misinformation, adding that more arrests are forthcoming in connection to the vandalism at the hands of the mob.
Babar Bin Atta, the Pakistani prime minister’s spokesman for polio matters, reportedly vowed to take action against everyone involved in damaging the anti-polio campaign.
“Panic was created to jeopardize 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. There were no instances of diarrhea or skin rashes on affected children,” he proclaimed, according to Dawn.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), polio is only endemic in three countries in the world — Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, making them the last frontier for efforts to eradicate naturally-occurring cases of the virus.
The Pakistani PM’s spokesman pledged to continue the anti-polio campaign until the virus is completely eradicated from the country.
Police in [KP’s provincial capital of] Peshawar arrested a man on Tuesday after he allegedly spread misinformation about the anti-polio vaccine in a series of videos that went viral on social media, a day after hundreds of children in different cities complained of illness and were admitted to hospitals in the midst of a province-wide anti-polio drive.
Videos circulating on Twitter show a resident of Peshawar’s Mashokhel area, Nazar Muhammad, in Hayatabad Medical Complex, where children from a school in Badhber were admitted yesterday with complaints of illness following administration of the anti-polio vaccine.
In the video, Nazar alleges that [the] administration of the vaccine causes children to fall unconscious. Then he turns to a group of children standing next to him and orders them to “fall asleep”. They then lie down on the hospital bed behind them as if they were unconscious. When a boy gets up, Nazar tells him to “fall asleep” again, after which he lies down on the bed again.
A different video purportedly shows the man telling reporters that some of the children died after health officials administered the vaccine.
— Iftikhar Firdous (@IftikharFirdous) April 22, 2019
Panic soon spread after the videos went viral and local mosques began using their loudspeakers to caution people against the vaccines.
“The announcements ignited panic and villagers came out of their homes,” Qazi Jamil, the Peshawar police chief, told AFP, adding that a mob of 500 people subsequently set a local health center ablaze in anger.
“No one is believed to have been injured in the incident,” AFP reports.
Nevertheless, Hisham Inamullah, the health minister in KP, noted the false rumors prompted parents to take “around 25,000 kids” to the local hospital.
“Despite all our assurances, parents were worried”, Inamullah told reporters Tuesday, adding that the only two children who remained in the hospital are expected to be released soon.
The Telegraph notes:
Earlier this month Wajid Ali, a health worker, was murdered in the Mohmand district in the north of the country after he had remonstrated with a man who had stopped his children from receiving the vaccine. There were 18 separate attacks on health workers in Pakistan in 2017, according to The Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition of NGOs.
KP Health Minister Dr. Hisham Inamullah Khan held a press conference in Peshawar on Monday night to dispel the false rumors about the vaccine.
“In reality, there is nothing to worry as all the children are safe,” he declared.