More than 25,000 children were rushed to hospitals in northwest Pakistan after rumours spread that some had suffered reactions to a polio vaccine, officials said yesterday.
The panic came as health workers were carrying out a three-day vaccination campaign in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where many residents are already suspicious of the polio vaccine.
Authorities said the fears were unfounded, but declared an emergency at major hospitals in three provincial districts as the panic spread.
An AFP reporter in Peshawar visited two hospitals where he saw thousands of panicked parents arriving in cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles with their children.
Most of the parents later told AFP that their children exhibited no signs of problems after being vaccinated, but that they had rushed them to hospital anyway after hearing the rumours.
Qazi Jamil, police chief in the provincial capital Peshawar, told reporters that the rumours began when dozens of children complained of vomiting after they were vaccinated at a private school in a village outside the city on Monday.
After hearing of the complaints, local mosques began using their loudspeakers to warn people against the vaccine.
“The announcements ignited a panic and villagers came out of their homes,” Jamil said, adding that a group of some 500 people later set a local health centre on fire in anger.
No one is believed to have been injured in the incident.
The panic was further compounded by anti-vaccination video clips which quickly began circulating on social media.
In the videos, a man can be seen instructing young boys, who are in madrassa uniform, to lie on hospital beds and pretend to be unconscious, and the children can be seen following his orders.
In another video, the same man is spreading lies regarding the news of deaths of children due to the anti-polio vaccination.
The Lady Reading Hospital, Khyber Teaching Hospital and the Hayatabad Medical Complex were soon flooded with anxious parents bringing in their children.
Hisham Inamullah, provincial health minister, said “around 25,000 kids were taken to hospital”.
Despite assurances from the authorities that the anti-polio vaccine was completely safe, enraged residents broke down the main gate and set fire at the Mashokhel Hospital in Peshawar.
“Despite all our assurances, parents were worried,” Inamullah told reporters yesterday, adding that just two children were still in hospital but expected to be released soon.
Police are investigating the incident, and authorities said the vaccination campaign would continue until today.
Police have arrested the man spreading lies in the videos above, and have registered a case against a total of 12 suspects accused of vandalising property and sabotaging the anti-polio campaign.
“Raids being conducted to get all of them arrested. I am in touch with Peshawar Police Chief and following up on all updates. Not a single culprit will be spared,” Babar Atta, focal person to the prime minister on polio eradication, said in a tweet.
Speaking to Geo News earlier, Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) co-ordinator Kamran Afridi said: “There can be no reaction to the anti-polio vaccine. The vaccine was not expired and the condition of all the children is normal.”
He further said: “Doctors also said the children did not get a reaction from the vaccine. There are parents in Mashokhel who do not want to administer the drops to their children, and they could have fallen sick owing to other reasons.”
Polio is endemic in only three countries in the world – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria – although a relatively rare strain was also detected in Papua New Guinea at the end of last year.
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