Fear sells miraculously. It is a favorite weapon of choice for many politicians. US President, Donald Trump was adamant that there is a strong link between vaccination of small children and autism. His tweets on the topic created fear among parents and led to an almost nationwide movement to boycott vaccination. Not so long ago, in Peshawar, a similar movement emerged. And it continues to grow strong fueled by fear and has already become a viral whirlpool of panic that has swiftly moved to all corners of Pakistan.
The anti-vaccination movement recently claimed three lives. Polio workers are now considered a threat. A real threat is now blooming on the horizon. Children who are denied vaccination by their parents are in great danger of contracting disease. According to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even a single polio case is an outbreak as it can quickly spread and affect upto 200 children. Pakistan is one of three countries in the world that has never been polio free. But in 2018 it was on the verge of completely eliminating the virus. Only eight cases of this permanent illness were reported. We were on the cusp of a great triumph but now health workers have found themselves navigating a slippery slope. The national polio eradication program is facing a major roadblock putting millions of lives at risk and jeopardizing Pakistan’s future.
Failure to vaccinate children may lead to widespread emergence of not only polio but plethora of other preventable diseases. The resurgence of measles in the United States defies all the medical and technological breakthroughs that have come to shape our planet. The most developed country in the world has succumbed to a disease that was uniquely identified in the year 860 by a Persian physician. It is almost ironic that inspite of our complete knowledge about the disease we are on the brink of contracting an epidemic. Measles were completely eradicated in the year 2000 from the US. Now more than 600 cases have emerged in the country. Some major influencers have joined the ‘anti-vax’ movement. Their social media accounts have become actively involved in spreading misinformation.
Misinformation is a global threat. It wreaks havoc where you least expect. In mid-2017, mass hysteria gripped Jharkhand, a state in eastern India. Seven people lost their lives owing to mob violence. These people were convicted of abducting children. The rumors were fictitious and were spread through WhatsApp messenger service. In the following year many more such instances of mob justice were reported all across India. The perpetrators were mostly illiterate men, women, and children. On July of 2018 the total number of deaths crossed 40 owing to mass hysteria which was proceeded by several reports of child abductions as shared on social media.
In this information age we come across not only fictitious stories but we are now experiencing contravention of universally accepted facts. In October 2009 Flat Earth Society was relaunched to promote the idea that the Earth is flat and invite believers to join its ever-expanding membership base. Thanks to social media and YouTube, the idea has garnered a lot of support. It sounds absurd but it is backed by pseudoscience and fictitious facts propagated by a few influencers.
The flat Earth theory is an idea that is completely harmless. It is fun to hear people convince themselves and others about its veracity. But the attack on vaccination is a serious matter. Many local religious leaders and community heads across Pakistan have declared war on compulsory immunization. Religious figures command a lot of power in Pakistan. There are the key influencers especially in rural regions where illiteracy is high. It is no wonder that many mosques across Pakistan are actively taking part in deterring people from immunization campaigns. Anything declared un-Islamic is likely to be immediately accepted. In the digital realm many websites have popped up to warn people about the hazards of vaccination and convince them about its unholy nature. MuslimHealthWatch.com is one example where startling revelations are proclaimed. It has declared a Fatwa against vaccination. It goes as far as to declare that “Vaccination even on the assumption that the vaccine is free of haram ingredients, is haram”. It highlights that vaccines causes polio and contains substances which lead to cancer, sterility, AIDS, and many other diseases. The same theory is backed up by local religious leaders who are behind the anti-polio movement.
Social media companies have an active role to play in curbing misinformation especially if it has the potential to create harm. To some extent they should be held accountable for endangering lives. Furthermore, those propagating lies publicly should be prosecuted. Laws pertaining to spreading misinformation are not specifically present in the Pakistan Penal Code. Laws targeting fake news on social media and otherwise should be enacted. And there is a dire need to educate community leaders, especially prominent religious heads, in rural areas to help mitigate false information. But unless we take active measures we will continue to be governed by fear rather than rationality.
The article was originally published in TheWeeklyPakistan on April 30, 2019. For original content click here.