As polio goal nears, Pakistan pushes against vaccine misinformation

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – As Pakistan closes in on eradicating polio, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s office has urged the country’s telecoms regulator to take action against misinformation spread on social media discouraging vaccination against it and other diseases.

FILE PHOTO: A boy receives polio vaccine drops, during an anti-polio campaign, in a low-income neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

“The parental refusals due to misconceptions regarding the vaccine are emerging as the major obstacle in achieving complete eradication,” Khan’s office said in a letter to the head of the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority, referring to parents who refuse to get their children vaccinated.

The letter, which was dated March 7 and posted on Twitter on Friday, was headed “Removal of Anti Vaccine Content from Facebook and YouTube”.

No comment was immediately available from either company.

Separately on Friday, Facebook Inc, which along with other social media companies has faced growing pressure over spurious content spread on its platform, announced it would remove user groups and pages that contained misinformation about vaccinations. Last month, online video sharing site YouTube, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc, said it would take action to stop advertising revenue to channels promoting anti-vaccination content.

Along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, Pakistan is one of the only three countries where complete polio eradication has not yet been achieved, but case numbers are at the lowest level ever, with only four cases reported in 2019. The country’s success follows an intense program based around vaccinating vulnerable children.

The letter from Khan’s office said Pakistan was at a make-or-break moment and “cannot afford to become victim of any anti vaccine movement driven by propaganda mongers”. “I therefore look forward to your support in blocking out all anti vaccine content from the Internet in Pakistan.”

Vaccination campaigns have faced opposition from militant Islamist groups in Pakistan.

However Babar Atta, the prime minister’s point person on eradicating polio, said the main problem faced by the campaign was lack of access to children whose parents were reluctant to allow them to be vaccinated.

“Persistently missed children provide a safe haven to the virus to keep on circulating in the environment,” he said.

The questions people have around vaccinations is a “direct result of the negative content you have on social media”, he said, adding the issue is made more difficult to control because such content is often in local languages not spoken by outsiders.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), polio has been all but wiped out across the world following a sustained vaccination campaign, with only 22 cases reported in 2017 against more than 350,000 in 1988. There is no known cure but the disease can be prevented if children are given multiple treatments with the polio vaccine, the WHO says. While it has virtually eliminated, polio remains a threat to global health because as long as a single child remains infected, the virus can easily be spread into polio-free countries and unimmunized populations, the agency says.

Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Frances Kerry


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