On Saturday, in the wake of attacks on polio vaccination teams that left one health worker and a policeman dead, the government took the decision to suspend the country’s annual polio vaccination drive ‘indefinitely’. Since 2012, 95 people have been killed in attacks on polio vaccination teams and it goes without saying that the fallout of this, as well as the broader campaign of misinformation that has generated such hostility towards vaccination in Pakistan, will be disastrous. As thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of children across the country are prevented from receiving vital vaccines, there is a good chance that many will suffer and perhaps even die from easily preventable diseases in the years to come.

The growing antipathy towards vaccination is not a phenomenon restricted to Pakistan. In the West, particularly in the United States and increasingly in the United Kingdom, a small but vocal anti-vaccination movement has been picking up steam, with parents exploiting religious and philosophical opt-outs in the law to prevent their children from being vaccinated against diseases like measles. The factors underpinning anti-vaccine sentiment are numerous, and have brought together a diverse group of people who united only by their adherence to a dangerous idea that has serious implications for the health of their children and society at large. While there has long been a tradition of opposing vaccines on religious grounds, with small numbers of Christians belonging to relatively fundamentalist sects refusing to have their children vaccinated due to a belief in strictures against the introduction of alien substances into the body, contemporary anti-vaxxers (as they are commonly called) often draw on science to justify their skepticism. Famously, today’s anti-vaxxers first rose to prominence when they draw on the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who published research that apparently established a link between the MMR vaccine and the incidence of autism in children. Taking this as a starting point, anti-vaxxers began to believe in and propagate the claim that the compounds used in vaccines produced horrific side-effects in children, and that ‘natural’ remedies represented a safe and effective alternative to the chemical cocktails peddled by rapacious drug companies.

The problem with this, of course, was that the claims made by anti-vaxxers were not scientific at all and were, instead, based on nothing more than lies and quackery posing as scientific inquiry. Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s findings, for example, have been thoroughly and systematically debunked and exposed as fraudulent, with medical science coming to the overwhelming conclusion that vaccines are safe. Indeed Wakefield himself has been stripped of his medical license and can no longer practice in the United Kingdom. Similarly, the claims about ‘natural’ remedies that are made by anti-vaxxers do not standup to scientific scrutiny, and the media is replete with tragic stories of young children suffering and dying due to the shortsightedness and ignorance of parents eschewing scientific evidence for ideology.

While the ‘science’ that anti-vaxxers rely on is bunk, another factor fueling their beliefs often tends to be a commitment to new age self-improvement philosophies that emphasize clean and natural living as a route to well-being and health. In and of itself, a philosophy that advocates eating healthily and exercising is obviously good, but trouble arises when these ideas are taken to extremes by adherents who feel that all ‘artificial’ compounds somehow represent an unacceptable risk to health when ingested. This particular brand of anti-vaxxers buys into the idea that the chemical composition of vaccines is dangerous. These beliefs often coincide with a deep distrust of authority; many anti-vaxxers, particularly those on the right or the libertarian ends of the political spectrum, oppose vaccines because they allegedly represent an attempt by the government and drug companies to make money or pursue more nefarious agendas through mandatory vaccination campaigns. According to this argument, medical professionals, governmental officials, and the pharmaceutical industry are all part of a grand conspiracy and are actively working to suppress the truth anti-vaxxers claim to have discovered.

Sociologists and anthropologists working on ‘alternative’ health systems recognize that people who adhere to such ideas do so because they possess worldviews and lead lifestyles in which their decisions, while seemingly illogical to others, make complete sense. They also tend to be part of communities and groups were such beliefs are widespread, and their sense of identity is often linked to the maintenance of these ideas. In Pakistan, it is easy to see how some of the factors listed above might also contribute to the animosity displayed towards polio vaccination drives and the men and women who conduct them. As many might recall, the first whispers of anti-polio sentiment emerged in the waning years of the Musharraf regime, when military operations in FATA triggered allegations, often aired on radio by militant leaders, that polio vaccination campaigns were part of a wider conspiracy, hatched by the government and the United States, to make people sick. Specifically, these early forms of anti-vaccine propaganda tapped into existing sources of anxiety and insecurity; polio workers were accused of working at the behest of shadowy foreign actors, including NGOs, and it was alleged that the vaccine itself would leave boys and men impotent, thereby feeding into fears about the maintenance of the masculine order. The notion that vaccination was part of a conspiracy was only threatened in the aftermath of the US raid on Osama Bin Laden in Abbotabad, when it was revealed that Dr. Shakil Afridi helped the CIA locate Bin Laden by using a vaccination campaign as cover.

It is clear; fears that the polio vaccination drive is part of a sinister foreign agenda are rooted in a distrust of the government. It is also clear that the anti-Americanism that tinges this discourse finds its strength in the support for such notions that often comes from opportunistic parties, leaders, and even the government. Matters today are made worse by how right-wing commentators like Orya Maqbool Jan now take to the airwaves to attack the vaccination campaign, spreading more falsehood as they frothily espouse their deranged theories about what they think is happening in the world. Indeed, Orya Maqbool arguably has blood on his hands as his latest denunciation of vaccines was followed by a deadly attack on a team of polio workers the very next day.

One of the most striking images to appear in the press recently was of a determined young women marching through several feet of snow to deliver polio vaccines to children in the north of the country. Eradicating polio and preventing other diseases is a public health necessity whose importance cannot be understated, and the men and women currently risking their lives to provide a better future for Pakistan’s children are heroes deserving all the respect and support that can be given to them. It is imperative that the government show as much courage as its health workers and launch an aggressive campaign against the murderous anti-vaxxers determined to take the country back to the 19th century. Those who spread disinformation and lies should be relentlessly prosecuted and punished and their should be no effort spared in protecting polio workers from intimidation and attack.