Saturday, April 12, 2014

A look at the anti-vaccination movements in the US and in Pakistan

by Salman Hameed

Here is an excellent article that looks at the deeply problematic anti-vaccination movement in the US (yes, measles is back and the cases are on the rise in the US) and the physical attacks in Pakistan on polio vaccination teams: Someone should introduce anti-vaxxers to children with polio in Pakistan (full disclosure: the article is by my nephew):
The argument of these so-called “anti-vaxxers” is simple: vaccinations in infancy can cause autism and auto-immune diseases, so you shouldn’t vaccinate your children. That argument is also very wrong. The link between vaccines and autism has been disproved repeatedly, and studies continue to reiterate their safety and effectiveness. 
Most anti-vaxxers are unmoved by the research. And as measles cases mount around the country, I’m reminded of another disease, similarly resuscitated from the brink of eradication by ignorance and paranoia, although under very different circumstances. 
Ten years ago, Pakistan was poised to become the next country to eliminate polio, the devastating paralytic illness that crippled millions of children around the world throughout the 20th century. An aggressive immunization campaign powered by the World Health Organization and thousands of local citizens had reduced polio cases globally from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to just a few hundred in the early 2000s. 
But as conflict enveloped the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, paranoia came with it. Rumors and conspiracy theories about the vaccine, once only the territory of the most superstitious extremes of society, gained volume and attention: the vaccine was a Western formula to sterilize our children, the vaccination would infect our children with other diseases, the vaccine’s ingredients were against Islam.
While the focus often goes on a simplistic "Muslim opposition to polio" (for example biologist Jerry Coyne often sees religion as the sole cause), what is important is to not only point out the complex set of reasons that have led to polio opposition in Pakistan, but also the tremendous bravery and sacrifices of those individuals (many of the them also Muslims - and also from Pakistan) who are risking everything to eradicate polio in Pakistan. Here is Mustafa again:
Still, as those barriers to eradication arose in Pakistan, the WHO and its Pakistani partners continued their work. They launched campaigns to educate local authorities about the polio vaccine. They gathered religious leaders to dispel rumors of the vaccine being anti-Islamic. The vaccination program was steadily put back on track—only 49 cases of polio were recorded in 2011, when the government declared the disease a national emergency to be wiped out within two years. 
In Pakistan, though, it was never enough just to beat back superstition. The Taliban, who had previously enforced a vaccination ban in the Swat Valley in 2008 and 2009, combined anti-vaccine paranoia with outrage over drone strikes and a CIA-sponsored fake hepatitis B vaccine drive to impose a blanket ban on polio vaccinations in Waziristan and Taliban-controlled districts of Karachi. In December 2012, they began targeting health workers for assassination. 
Dozens of health workers and police officers protecting them have now been killed in bomb blasts and machine gun attacks around the country, a campaign of violence without precedent as a challenge to global health. Two weeks ago, a lady health worker named Salma Farooqi, who was kidnapped at gunpoint from her home in a suburb of Peshawar, was found dead. “The body was taken to a hospital where doctors said it bore bullet injuries and marks of torture,” Dawn reported. “The woman had been hit by rifle butts and knives.”
This last paragraph is heartbreaking and shows the viciousness of the Taliban campaign. Nevertheless, as Mustafa points out, the roots of anti-vaccination movements in both Pakistan and in the US lie in a rejection of reason:
And as this vital battle against disease and ignorance rages on half a world away, armchair anti-vaxxers in New York and D.C. and Kansas and California continue their defiance of science and reason, fighting, in effect, to bring disease back into the world. I wonder how many of them realize that their rhetoric is a reworking of the same kind of superstition that kindled the Taliban’s ban. And I wonder—if they were to meet a child crippled by polio or parents who wanted to protect their children but could not, would that change their minds?
Read the full article here.

Related posts: 
An Obama apology may save polio campaign in Pakistan
Pakistan's polio eradication problem
Polio may be the winner between the Taliban and the CIA
Is there ever a justification for a fake vaccination program? 
Between fatwas and polio
Anti-vaccination idiocy at a Texas megachurch

2 comments:

Parandis said...

Excellent article! It is rather unfortunate that people are abandoning reason and put the fate of their children and the society in the hands of uninformed clerics and conspiracy theorists. This calls for a need for truly informing (and not misinforming) people on the importance of science and scientific achievements. I think scientists must act responsibly in popularizing science and do not give excuses to conspiracy theorists to lead their campaign more effectively.

Akbar said...

Can the opponents of vaccination, is the disease itself fighting for its survival? Just saying