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Long-standing distrust of polio shots threatens Covid vaccine campaign in Pakistan

For the past three months it has been Dr Mohsin Ali’s job to hear volunteers’ concerns about taking part in a coronavirus vaccine trial and he’s worried by what he has heard.

From accusations of mass sterilisation schemes to shots that cause autism or even contain mind control implants, he has heard the dizzying breadth of vaccine conspiracy theories sweeping Pakistan.

After more than 7,000 interviews, he now fears the same bizarre rumours and hearsay which have threatened to derail the nation’s polio vaccination campaigns also jeopardise a roll out of Covid-19 jabs.

His fears are shared by many health officials, who worry public distrust over polio drops sets a precedent for stamping out the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you are not going to win the argument about vaccinating your kids against a deadly disease like polio, then it doesn’t bode well for a Covid vaccine,” explained one international official.

Dr Ali’s work counselling participants in phase III trials for the Chinese vaccine developer CanSino Biologics has convinced him that dangerous misconceptions run right across society.

“People who are coming in from every walk of life: from a waiter to a bureaucrat to a general; educated and uneducated. All of them have different misconceptions: their own variety,” he told the Telegraph.

Worryingly, a Gallup Pakistan poll conducted in November showed 37 per cent of Pakistanis would not get a vaccine once one became available. For those in the educated elite, the theories that vaccines cause autism or are somehow linked to surveillance microchips are similar to those that have spread like wildfire on social media in the West.

“The uneducated people, they come up with questions about whether it is going to chemically castrate us,” Dr Ali said. “They ask are you going to cause infertility, is it some sort of international conspiracy, are we going to be killed?”

Suspicion of vaccines is not the only hurdle, said Dr Qaisar Sajjad, secretary general of the Pakistan Medical Association. Many people refuse to believe coronavirus is real, or is harmful.

He said: “With corona, people are not accepting first that it is a problem. They say it’s a conspiracy, so I think most of the people will not go for a vaccine.”

Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries where wild polio virus remains endemic, but public mistrust has for years hobbled attempts to stamp it out. Accusations that the campaign is a secret Western plot to sterilise Muslims have been stoked by extremists and have in recent years been supercharged by social media.

The spectre of the Dr Shakil Afridi case also remains, a decade later. Dr Afridi worked with the CIA to set up a fake vaccination programme to confirm Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Abbottabad by collecting DNA samples door-to-door.

The revelations surrounding the programme, which saw Dr Afridi jailed for 33 years for treason, for some confirmed suspicions that vaccinations are a US intrigue.

The high Covid-19 death tolls and caseloads recorded in Europe, America and even in neighbouring India have not been seen in Pakistan, even though official figures are seen as undercounts.

Government figures have shown a second wave appeared to peak in December and hospital admissions and deaths have declined. The country has recorded nearly 11,000 deaths and around half a million cases.

Muqaddar Riaz, a 25-year-old worker in a plastic pipe factory who was queuing for his experimental jab, admitted he was sceptical about coronavirus as a whole, but said his boss had told him to enrol in the trial at Islamabad’s Shifa private hospital.

“I have heard so many things on social media about vaccines, for example that it’s got pork in it. I have heard it’s a conspiracy, but I don’t know. God knows better,” he said.

Fazel Habib, another 25-year-old volunteer, said his work in the hospital had convinced him of the risk from coronavirus after seeing intensive care wards fill in recent weeks.

But he predicted many in his home district of Khyber on the Afghan border would mistrust any vaccine. “Even still now, people do not believe in polio vaccine so I see there will be challenges.”

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