The anti-polio campaign has been postponed indefinitely. The National Emergency Opera­tion Centre (EOC) for polio, Islam­abad, issued a red alert to all the provinces on Friday, directing them to stop the anti-polio campa­ign all over the country, and for the first time in history, the federal government also suspended the post-campaign evaluation, called the “Lot Quality Assurance Sampling”.

The news, while disappointing, is not surprising. A sort of panic about the anti-polio program had gripped the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, with tensions escalating to the point that the lives of polio workers were put at risk due to angry mobs of parents refusing to get their children vaccinated. The anti-polio vaccine feeling in KPK, where people set fire to a health unit and held polio workers in hostage, soon spread to other parts of the country as well, with parents in the rural and urban areas of the capital also refusing to vaccinate their children. The vilification of polio workers worsened to such an extent that a female polio worker was gunned down on Thursday in Balochistan’s Chaman. Perhaps it was this death that propelled the government to put off the polio drive in alarm of further harm to polio workers.

It makes sense to pause and evaluate the strategy and tactics of the polio drive. Our country, unfortunately, is one where misinformation and fear-mongering thrives and spreads quickly. The whole panic about the polio drive was initiated by some bad-faith actors, who released fake videos depicting children falling ill due to the polio vaccine. Despite the videos being complete lies, and despite the KP Health Minister debunking the so-called effects of the vaccine, the smearing of the vaccine continued to be spread through mosques, schools and even some influential media actors- Orya Maqbool Jan, for instance.

These disastrous series of events makes it clear that the health industry may need to re-think its strategy with the campaign, by making better use of the media to debunk the false claims about the vaccine. Yet the government must not give up. If the government is taking a temporary break of the campaign due to the risk to polio workers, it needs to ensure that the campaign is launched again in good time, this time with better, stricter initiatives taken. These include Police escorts with polio teams, fining of parents refusing immunisation and harsh penalties against those spreading misinformation. Stopping now will only allow the disease to persist for longer.