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Scaremongering Video Undermines Anti-Polio Drive in Pakistan

FILE - Family members rush a boy to a hospital after receiving a polio vaccination, in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 22, 2019.

Police in northwestern Pakistan have detained a man and are hunting down his suspected associates for spreading unfounded rumors through fake social media videos that a polio vaccine led to fainting and vomiting.

The detainee, Nazar Muhammad, who teaches at a private school near the Peshawar city, is seen in the scaremongering Twitter videos instructing his students to faint and pretend to be sick from the oral polio vaccine (OPV).

The videos emerged Monday during the ongoing three-day polio vaccination campaign and quickly went viral. The videos sparked widespread protests, with angry mobs destroying a local health unit. Clerics in mosques used loudspeakers to warn parents against having their children vaccinated.

FILE - A health worker gives a polio vaccination to students in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 22, 2019.
FILE - A health worker gives a polio vaccination to students in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 22, 2019.

The scare prompted panicked families to rush their children to hospitals, where doctors examined more than 25,000 and concluded that none had suffered an adverse reaction after receiving the vaccine drops.

The provincial government took action, and a police crackdown detained Muhammad by midnight. Raids continued Tuesday to search for about a dozen other suspects.

Islamic clerics and residents in parts of the religiously conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, of which Peshawar is the capital, have long been suspicious of the polio vaccine, claiming it is a Western conspiracy to harm or sterilize Muslim children.

Police also confirmed that one of their officers deployed to guard polio vaccinators in the province's Bannu city was gunned down by unknown men. Militants also have taken responsibility for attacks against polio workers, accusing them of working as government spies.

'Panic and hysteria'

World Health Organization officials say Peshawar is "the most stubborn hotbed of poliovirus." The three-day national vaccination campaign aims to reach 1.6 million children up to the age of 10 in the city. It is due to end Wednesday.

WHO country chief for polio eradication, Abdi Mahamud, said in a statement he also personally visited hospitals across Peshawar and found no children with any adverse side effects from the OPV.

He noted that the scare had nothing to do with vaccine safety, but rather "panic and hysteria." He said more than half a million children have been successfully vaccinated in the city.

Attacks against polio teams and security personnel escorting them have killed dozens of people in Pakistan, one of three countries in the world — along with Afghanistan and Nigeria — where wild poliovirus is still endemic. Nigeria has not reported any new cases for two consecutive years.