Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Vaccine fear and violence blights Pakistan’s attempt to fight Covid-19

Worldwide success will depend on universal vaccine coverage to effectively control and eliminate the disease.

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Covid-19 vaccines are being greeted with relief around the world, but there are still countries where vaccines inspire fear and violence.

Leading a mass trial for a Chinese-made vaccine in Pakistan, a country where anti-vax sentiment can turn lethal and conspiracy theories are endemic, Dr Mohsin Ali has heard it all.

“Is this going to take away my reproductive ability? Is there a 5G chip in this? Is there a conspiracy to control people?” he said, recounting the doubts clouding people’s minds.

“I try to answer them with logic at their level but many still refuse the vaccine,” he told Reuters at Islamabad’s Shifa International Hospital where Phase 3 trials are underway for Chinese vaccine developer CanSino Biologics.

The government last week announced it had begun the vaccine procurement process, though it has not said whether it will purchase CanSino’s candidate or an alternative.

A Gallup Pakistan poll conducted last month showed 37% of Pakistanis would not accept a vaccine once one becomes available.

“This is an alarming number, not just for Pakistan but also for the world, which will depend on universal vaccine coverage to control spread,” said Bilal Gilani, the pollster’s executive director.

Countering anti-vax sentiments is a worldwide problem, but in Pakistan it is more dangerous than almost anywhere else.

Dozens of people have been killed in attacks on polio vaccination teams over the years, making Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan the only countries where the crippling disease is still a huge problem.

Islamist militancy plays a role in attacks on polio immunisation teams after a doctor was accused of running a fake vaccination campaign to help the US find Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Yet the dangers of polio have been well known for decades, whereas Covid-19 is a new disease, and authorities are struggling to communicate the urgent need to stamp it out.

Infections continue to soar even as experts say Pakistan is doing only a fraction of the testing it should.

Qibla Ayaz, the head of the Council of Islamic Ideology, which advises the government on social and legal issues, said many of the conspiracy theories about Covid-19 are coming from Western countries, spread by social media.

“The majority of scholars have said the vaccine and other treatments are important, but there are always extremists as there are with polio,” Ayaz told Reuters.

“Given the kind of ‘Westphobia’ we have in Pakistan, it might be better to obtain a vaccine from Russia or China, instead of the US or UK.”

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