Islamist militants who believe doctors have laced doses of polio vaccine with poison to sterilize or kill their children are threatening the doctors out of northwestern Pakistan, Reuters reported Thursday.
Reuters reported on Thursday that hard-line Muslim clerics in the insular region have long peddled conspiracy theories about Western powers using poisoned vaccines to make children sick or sterilize them, or medical teams including Western spies sent to conduct surveillance on rural Muslim communities. These rumors gained strength after a Pakistani doctor helped the United States hunt down al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Some Pakistani imams reject inoculations on purely religious grounds, claiming the vaccines contain materials that should not be introduced to the body under Muslim dietary laws, such as products derived from pigs.
The current crisis situation is reportedly driven by rumors of children dying from polio vaccinations spread on social media. The vaccine panic became so intense that militants burned down a village health center, threatened medical workers, and killed at least one medical worker. An emergency push to make up for lost time with a heavy schedule of vaccinations was called of last week due to security concerns.
The Pakistani government is worried the panic is spreading far beyond the hinterlands. Earlier vaccination campaigns encountered a few hundred refuses in big cities like Islamabad, but this year the number of refusals is reportedly over 10,000.
“The mistrust in one segment of society, that refuses vaccinations due to religious beliefs, is translating into the rest of the country, which is something not seen in the past,” one official told Reuters.
“The biggest challenge in cities like Islamabad is the refusal by parents. Even if 1 percent of the children don’t get the polio drops, the polio sample remains alive in the environment, and we have to work harder in the next campaign,” another Pakistani official told the New York Times.
The Pakistani government on Friday urged Facebook to remove anti-vaccination propaganda because it has become “the major obstacle in achieving complete eradication of the virus.” Efforts have also been made to recruit influential clerics to launch another in Pakistan’s long series of public education campaigns to convince the public polio vaccination is safe and necessary.