Immunisation Hesitancy in Pakistan

The news broke out that Prime Minister Imran Khan was tested positive for Covid-19 just two days after he was vaccinated. With Pakistan observing more than an 8% Covid-19 positivity rate, the impression it will have on the vaccine-hesitant societies like Pakistan is crucial to observe.

Though the Prime Minister’s decision to broadcast himself while receiving the jab was highly appreciated, the news of him being infected soon after has immensely boosted vaccine scepticism in the midst of the initial immunisation drive. This can add fuel to the fire in an already dismal state of immunisation in Pakistan. Considered the most successful public health initiative, immunisation drives are still trailing behind in Pakistan. The diseases that have been eradicated through vaccination in other states are still very much present in Pakistan. The reason for this trend is the uniqueness of economic and healthcare programs through which these public healthcare initiatives are implemented. However, in the case of Pakistan, many entangled factors, like logistical obstacles, lack of awareness, the influence of religious communities, and inefficient healthcare workers’ attitude, are the causal factors behind under-vaccination.

Disease propensity in Pakistan remains high because of weak hygiene practices, dual healthcare system, and conspiracy theories since Pakistani society already indicates a vigorous resistance against certain Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (VPD), like Polio. Any negative perception among the population regarding Covid-19 can have serious consequences. A recent report on the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) frontline healthcare workers’ refusal to be inoculated against Covid-19 is troubling. Many want to first witness the effect it can have on the masses, and others prefer waiting for the Oxford vaccine AstraZeneca. Such attitude towards vaccination by the healthcare workers can even trickle down to the grassroots level slowing down if not completely halting the vaccination drive.

It is the misinformation around the pandemic triggering a wave of quacks and conspiracies. Some of these problems are primarily linked to social media, where a lack of editorial gatekeepers and a whimsical corporate approach can lead to much confusion and bad faith in the public.

Alongside Covid-19, another pandemic is unfolding at an alarming rate of mutation; it is the misinformation around the pandemic triggering a wave of quacks and conspiracies. Some of these problems are primarily linked to social media, where a lack of editorial gatekeepers and a whimsical corporate approach can lead to much confusion and bad faith in the public. This has given way to several anti-vax movements around the world. A petition, signed late last year by a semi-retired British scientist, claims that the Covid-19 vaccine will cause female infertility. A Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey shows that around 13% of unvaccinated people in the United States (US) have heard about the petition.  This indicates the rate of misinformation and scepticism being transmitted in public across the board.

Many still believe that such a speedy vaccine development has overlooked some of its major drawbacks. Anti-vaxxers have claims like; the vaccine might change the DNA, implant microchips for surveillance, and that the pandemic is a product of big pharma and the World Health Organization (WHO). Likewise, a joint statement stated that misinformation could cost many lives. This is the state of many developed nations with a high literacy rate. Whereas in Pakistan, the situation is even bleaker.

In a nutshell, the federal government of Pakistan has come against a brick wall in the wake of growing cynicism about the effectiveness of the vaccine. The socio-economic hindrances are embedding fear and insecurities in the hearts of the public.  In place of ending up in the middle of an intractable bedlam that can lead to yet another bout of uncertainty, the government should consider the advice of Dr Howard K. Koh, who is a Professor at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.  Dr Koh has recently “outlined five ways for political leaders to build trust”.

The other challenge looming over the federal government is the anti-vaccine movement gaining traction across the country. The world has lately witnessed groundswell support for the anti-vax campaign, which may have more disastrous consequences for Pakistani society due to the reasons underscored in the earlier part of the article. The perils of “information disorder” are so grave in the contemporary era that the Duke of Sussex, Prince Harry, has recently decided to join the Aspen Institute to look into the prevalent issue of “fake news”.  If the federal government does not take immediate steps to overcome the challenges it is confronted with, the ongoing supreme fanfare with which it has kicked off its vaccination drive may lose its lustre and prove to be its waterloo in tackling the deadly pandemic.

Rida Fatima

Rida Fatima is a graduate of the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid -I-Azam University. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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