It’s Not the Needle They’re Afraid of

Feelings against vaccines have become a more prevalent sentiment among many people around the world. Conspiracy theories against getting vaccines have proven to be especially detrimental to people in Pakistan. 

Polio, a highly infectious disease that mostly affects children aged 5 and under, has been eliminated around the world except in 3 countries, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, where it is still rampant. Pakistan was close to eradicating polio until a major anti-vaccination movement began, which set them back. In mosques, they asked parents not to get their children vaccinated because of conspiracy theories about the vaccine, which contributed to the spread of these ideas. Some parents have heard that these vaccines were poisoning children, which has stopped many people from giving the vaccine to their children. Others distrust the vaccine because it was sent from America, and one mother, Hansa Bibi said about the vaccine that “They put ingredients [forbidden in Islam] in the vaccine to sterilise the Muslim population. They put things in this that are making all the children vomit.” Many other parents and Pakistani citizens express sentiments similar to the one of Hansa Bibi, and not only is social media spreading these ideas more rapidly, but religious clerics have also been key in the dissemination of these ideas.

 These feelings run so deeply in some communities and are even manifested as violence. For example, a hospital was burned down by residents who were angered after many parents brought their children to hospitals. These children were brought to the hospital because of claims that their children got sick because of the polio vaccine. The government arrested key figures involved in this incident but the damage was already done. Many parents became worried for their children’s safety in regards to the vaccine whereas they previously had not been. These fears led to attacks on workers who were administering vaccines, and police officers guarding the polio workers, some of whom died.

These attacks caused the government to pause any campaigning for the vaccine, which caused the number of polio cases to rise more than it had in years, as can be seen in the chart below.

   As with polio similar anti-vaccination sentiments are spreading throughout Pakistan about the coronavirus vaccine. This could prove to affect not only Pakistan but the world’s progress to stop or slow down the pandemic.  

Many people in Pakistan are skeptical about the COVID vaccine, and express similar fears about this vaccine as with the polio vaccine. When one doctor, Mohsin Ali, was recounting questions that he has received about the vaccine and people’s hesitancy about it he said: “Is this going to take away my reproductive ability? Is this going to kill me? Is there any 5G chip in this? And, is there a conspiracy to control people en masse? I get many questions like this. I try to answer them with logic and on the level of the individual asking them. Some still refuse.”

For this vaccine to be productive and for the coronavirus to be managed well it relies on people following restrictions and for people to eventually get the vaccine. Already around 37% of people in Pakistan said they would not get the vaccine. This is particularly worrying because there are experiences of people who got the disease and when they were brought to multiple hospitals they were turned away. One man, Iqbal Shaheen, was told that he could bring his father to a private hospital, but he was not able to afford that level of care. He had to bring his father home where he eventually died. He said “The poor cannot afford to be sick. Without political connections, a coronavirus patient cannot get admitted at a public hospital, while paying a private hospital’s bills is unthinkable.” 

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Despite the spread of conspiracy theories through the media, there is hope for Pakistan to counteract these theories. Due to the fear that many have about the West, Pakistan has been testing Chinese vaccines, hoping that more people would be willing to get them. Thousands of people volunteered to get the vaccine from China, despite what they heard on the media or from their family. After they saw no major side effects from the vaccine their family members were more willing to get the vaccine as well. These experiences could be what Pakistan needs to convince more people that the conspiracy theories are false. As is evident with the COVID-19 pandemic we cannot predict what communicable diseases can arise and have devastating effects. In order to control them fears about vaccines need to be handled; otherwise it will only make diseases harder to control. 

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