PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - His bearded face was half-covered by a shawl, but Hameedullah Khan’s fear and ignorance was on full display as he delivered a chilling message for anyone who tries to vaccinate his children against polio.
“I will stab anyone who comes to my house with polio drops,” Khan growled, refusing to be filmed or photographed as he shopped in a fly-blown bazaar on the outskirts of Peshawar, a city scarred by years on the frontline of Islamist militancy in Pakistan.
This dangerous hostility to immunization teams flared last week after religious hardliners in the city spread false rumors, raising a scare on social media that some children were being poisoned and dying from contaminated polio vaccines.
The rumors spread like wildfire, triggering mass panic in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Mobs burned a village health center, blocked a highway and pelted cars with stones. Medical workers were harassed and threatened.
Mosques made announcements that children were having cramps, vomiting and diarrhea after they were given “poisonous” polio drops. Word went out on social media that some children had died.
Panicked parents rushed their children to hospitals, overwhelming health authorities. In Peshawar alone, about 45,000 children were brought to hospitals complaining of nausea and dizziness. Officials described it as mass hysteria, asserting there had been no deaths confirmed.
It is easy to feed the fears of communities that feel under siege, as in northwest Pakistan.
Mistrust of outsiders and modernity goes a long way to explaining why Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan are two of just three countries in the world - Nigeria is the third - where polio remains endemic.
Some Muslim clerics have peddled stories that the vaccines are part of Western plot to make Muslims sterile, while militant groups have killed nearly 100 health workers and their guards since 2012 on the pretext that they could be Western spies.
Those killings escalated after a doctor in Peshawar involved in the campaign against polio helped U.S. forces track down and eliminate al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
Just late week, militants shot and killed a medical worker and two policemen guarding other vaccination teams in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and neighboring Baluchistan province.
But the scale of the most recent backlash against a campaign to eradicate polio is something new for government officials, who worry that the suspicions and backward thinking of a hardline minority has infected the wider public.
“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,” Babar Atta, the government’s top coordinator in the drive against polio, told Reuters.
Every year Pakistan’s government mounts public education campaigns and recruits Muslim religious leaders to reassure people, but their suspicions persist.
As a result of last week’s false rumors, families of hundreds of thousands of children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and elsewhere refused to participate in the latest campaign to eradicate a virus that can cause paralysis or death.
“No drops for us in the future!,” Saif-ur-Rehman, a father of eight, repeating the rumors that the vaccines were contaminated or expired.
“Even my son was saying: ‘The next time they bring polio drops to school, I am going to get up and run away from school’. I said, ‘Do that’.”
An inquiry found the false stories originated at two schools on the outskirts of Peshawar. Health workers seeking to vaccinate pupils from the Dar-ul-Qalam and Roza-tul-Atfaal schools had met with repeated refusals, according to provincial officials.
Investigators also identified and arrested a man seen in a video telling dozens of children to pose as if the vaccine had rendered them unconscious, Farooq Jameel, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s senior-most health official, said.
Police also arrested 16 other men, some of whom had threatened vaccination teams on the streets.
A provincial leader of a conservative Islamist party that officials suspected had some links to the schools’ owners denied any connection and went on to endorse the immunization program.
“I have been vaccinating my own children and will continue to give them polio vaccine till a certain age, but people have some misconception and doubts about polio vaccine, and the government needs to address their concerns,” Abdul Wasey, secretary-general of Jamat-e-Islami Pakistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, told Reuters.
But the damage has been done.
Pakistan has made huge strides in tackling polio, but officials say that while the latest immunization drive succeeded in inoculating 37.6 million children, 1.4 million were left unprotected.
Citing fears of attacks on health workers, authorities called off a two-day catch up for the vaccination drive last week.
The global campaign against the disease over the past few decades has been a great success story, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting just 33 cases of polio worldwide in 2018.
But most of them were in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the danger is that so long as a single child remains infected the virus can quickly spread into polio-free countries and un-immunized populations.
There is no known cure for polio, but the disease can be prevented if children are given multiple treatments with the vaccine.
Nadia Gul, a housewife, is among the volunteer health workers who make up the vaccination teams. Two children in her close family are victims of polio.
Covering her face with a veil to talk with strangers, Gul spoke of the dangers she faces due to the heinous slurs propagated by ill-educated opponents, but she refuses to be cowed.
“We have fears in our minds and in our hearts, but we will not lose courage,” Gul told Reuters. “Our aim, the aim of all the polio workers, is that we end this scourge in our country, so that no child, God forbid, is crippled.”
Writing by Asif Shahzad and Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore