Pakistan crackdowns on anti-vaccine messages to eradicate polio
Alok Gupta

On the verge of stamping out poliovirus from the country, Pakistan has intensified efforts to remove anti-vaccine content circulating on various social media platforms and throughout the Internet. 

“It is high time Pakistan takes strict measures to regulate vaccine-related content to regulate misconceptions about vaccines,” a letter issued by Pakistan's Prime Minister Office to the country's telecom regulator, Pakistan Telecom Authority, said. 

The crackdown on anti-vaccine messages comes after it announced an extensive polio immunization drive starting on March 25 in the “high risks and vulnerable districts of the country."  

Globally, only three countries – Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria – in the world have not been able to control transmission of polio.  

Pakistan's effort to achieve the target of zero polio cases was jolted after the confirmation of four new cases since January 1. Detection of the poliovirus in the sewage of 10 cities has made the matter worse. 

Despite hurdles, Pakistan reduced the polio incidence rate by more than 96 percent, but eradicating the last four percent is proving to be an uphill task. 

Poliovirus in the country flared up in 2014 with the detection of 304 cases, while global and local intervention reduced the numbers to 19 in 2016. 

Parental resistance to administering the polio vaccine to children and migration from neighboring Afghanistan are significant challenges in controlling the virus. 

Estimates suggest that as a result of anti-vaccine sentiments dominating a few pockets in the country, more than 100,000 children remain unvaccinated.

Dots on the map show new polio cases detected in the last one year. /WHO Graphics

Dots on the map show new polio cases detected in the last one year. /WHO Graphics

A deadly infectious disease, polio spreads from one human to another through the fecal-oral route and can cause paralysis. There is no cure for the disease.  

In a bid to protect children from the infectious disease, policymakers across the globe are urging social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to remove anti-vaccine messages, the PMO letter added. 

“Since Pakistan is at a make or break moment in the fight against polio eradication and cannot afford to become a victim of any anti-vaccine movement driven by propaganda mongers,” Babar Bin Atta, Prime Minister's Focal Person on Polio Eradication, said.  

In the last two decades, polio eradication drives supported by the World Health Organization WHO), Unicef and Rotary International, along with national governments, eradicated the virus from many countries including India, China, and African countries. 

Early this month, after a backlash from major media outlets and health experts, Amazon initiated steps to delete anti-vaccine videos and documentaries from its Amazon Prime Video streaming service. 

"Vaxxed," a controversial documentary, has been circulating widely on various social media platforms. It tries to establish a link between vaccines and autism, drawing claims from the work of discredited British doctor, Andrew Wakefield.