Facebook posts wrongly claim polio vaccine caused child’s death in Pakistan
Child died due to aspiration pneumonia as she breathed in vomit, which entered her lungs
Claim: A child in the Pashtoon Abad neighbourhood of Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, died due to the oral polio vaccine (OPV) administered to her in September 2022.
Fact: The doctor who treated the child confirmed that she died due to severe pneumonia, a condition in which food or liquid enters the airways or the lungs, and not due to the polio vaccine. Zulfiqar Babakhel, the media manager at Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme’s National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC), also refuted the claims circulating on social media.
On 30 September 2022, two posts — here and here — emerged on Facebook alleging that the polio vaccine, administered as oral drops to children across Pakistan, caused the death of a girl child in the Pashtoon Abad neighbourhood of Quetta, Balochistan.
The caption accompanying the first post is as follows:
“یہ میرے دوست کی بیٹی تھی
تصاویر میں نظر آنے والی بچی بلکل ٹھیک اور صحت مند تھی ان کو جیسا ہی پولیو کے قطرے دیئے ان کی حالت غیر ہوگئی۔
اپنے بچوں کی زندگیاں بچانے کیلئے پولیو سے بائیکاٹ کریں اور جب تک آپ کے بچوں کے جان کی زمہداری اسٹام پیپر پر لک کر نا دے اس وقت تک اپنے بچوں کو پولیوں نا پھلائیں۔۔
جب تک متاثرہ خاندان کو انصاف نہیں ملے گی اس وقت تک ہم چین سے نہیں بیٹھیں گے۔۔
پولیوں کے اس ٹیم کو فوری گرفتار کیا جائیں جو اس واقعہ میں ملوث تھی۔۔
[This was my friend’s daughter
The girl child seen in the pictures was completely fine and healthy but as soon as she was administered polio drops, her condition deteriorated.
Boycott the polio [vaccine] to save the lives of your children and do not give the polio [vaccine] to your children until the responsibility for the life of your children is given on a stamped [legal] paper.
We will not sit down comfortably until the victim’s family gets justice.
The team of police officers who were involved in this incident should be arrested immediately.]”
The post includes the hashtag, “#پولیو_علاج_نہیں_بلکہ_یہ_زیر_ثابت_ہو_رہا_ھے,” which translates to, “Polio is not a treatment but has proved to be poison.“
The caption accompanying the second post is as follows:
“پولیو باعث صحت نہیں باعث زحمت بنی ہوئی ہے افسوس پشتون آباد کے نا اہل اور نا تجربہ کار پولیو عملے کی وجہ سے آج ایک لخت جگر اپنی ماں باپ سے ہمیشہ ہمیشہ کیلئے رخصت ہو گئ شیم شیم پولیو پشتون آباد عملہ ۔۔حکام بالا سے سختی سے نوٹس لینے کی اپیل کی جاتی ہیں کہ اس نا اہل نالائق نا تجربہ کار پولیو ورکرز پشتون آباد کے خلاف کارروائی کرتے ہوئے سخت سے سخت سزا دی جائے تاکہ آئندہ ایسی واقعات رونما نہ ہو۔۔پوسٹ کو زیادہ سے زیادہ شیئر کریں
[Polio does not make one immune but causes pain. Unfortunately, due to the incompetent and inexperienced polio staff of Pashtoon Abad, a darling child has left her parents forever. Shame, shame [at] the polio staff of Pashtoon Abad. Appeal to the top officials to take notice and take action against the incompetent, unqualified, and inexperienced polio workers of Pashtoon Abad and mete out strict punishment [to them] so that such incidents do not happen in the future. Share this post as much as possible.]”
The posts started gaining traction exponentially, with the former being shared more than 250 times on Facebook.
Polio vaccine and disinformation in Pakistan
According to the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme website, “Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by poliovirus mainly affecting children under the age of five years. It invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis or even death. While there is no cure for polio, vaccination is the most effective way to protect children from this disease.
“Each time a child under the age of five is vaccinated, their protection against the virus is increased. Repeated immunizations have protected millions of children from polio, allowing almost all countries in the world to become polio-free, besides the two endemic countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan,” the website states.
Pakistan has seen multitudes of polio misinformation and disinformation campaigns — including the use of staged videos — that have led to protests, violence against polio workers, mobs, and a resistance from parents to vaccinate their children. Conspiracy theories, such as the West using polio vaccine to covertly sterilise children of Muslim families, have led Islamic clerics to warn against inoculation through loudspeakers in mosques.
Fact or Fiction?
Soch Fact Check reached out to Zulfiqar Babakhel, the media manager at the Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme’s NEOC, to inquire about the claim’s authenticity.
Babakhel said the posts were brought to the team’s attention and reported to Facebook as well. The child, he added, was “definitely administered the polio vaccine drops, but the cause of her death was pneumonia.”
Soch Fact Check spoke to Dr Agha Hussain Notkani, a paediatrician at Quetta’s Nagi Children Hospital who treated the child.
Dr Notkani confirmed that the child had died due to severe pneumonia, also known as aspiration pneumonia, in which food or liquid — for example, vomit — enters the airways or the lungs. Accidentally breathing in foreign objects or harmful substances can also lead to the condition.
The social media claims are “absolutely incorrect”, he said. The child was brought to him at night during his first round at the hospital and she was in “severe distress” and “extreme pain”, he said, adding that she “clearly had aspiration pneumonia”.
“Her chest was full of ‘trickle’, which is a medical term [for fluid entering the lungs]. I explained to them [her family] that this did not happen because of the polio vaccine. She had vomited and her vomit content had gone into her chest.
“I have almost 30 years of experience and I have never seen an instance where a child develops pneumonia after being administered the polio vaccine and is then put on the ventilator the next day,” he stated.
Dr Notkani said those who made the social media posts are trying to tarnish the polio campaign in some way or the other. “There are some groups in Balochistan that spread rumours [about the polio vaccination programme,” he added.
بلوچستان کے 5️⃣ اضلاع کوئٹہ، پشین، چمن، قلعہ عبداللہ اور ژوب میں خصوصی انسداد پولیو مہم❗
چمن میں خواتین پولیو ورکرز ہر گھر ہر گلی جا کر اپنے اس عزم کو عملی جامہ پہنا رہی ہیں کہ کوئی بھی بچہ 👶🏼 پولیو ویکسین پینے سے محروم نہ رہ جائے۔#VaccinesWork #PolioFree🇵🇰 #ForEveryChild pic.twitter.com/Ybry7YHWn7
— Pak Fights Polio (@PakFightsPolio) September 30, 2022
A polio vaccination programme commenced in various districts of Balochistan late September.
Soch Fact Check was also sent a video statement from the same doctor, who termed the social media posts “rumours”.
Dr Agha Hussain Notkani says, “When that child was brought to us on 28 September 2022, [the condition of] her chest was serious and she was put on the ventilator. We tried our best to save her through [the use of] the ventilator, but she could not be saved.
“This child absolutely did not pass away because of the polio [vaccine] but died due to severe pneumonia, which we call aspiration pneumonia. The child vomited and some of the content went into her chest [lungs], causing her death. She could not be resuscitated despite being put on the ventilator,” Dr Notkani says in the video statement, urging Pakistani citizens not to deny polio workers from administering the vaccine to their children.
“The polio [vaccine] is the safest vaccine and it is absolutely crucial that we administer polio [drops] to our children and never deny it. I have an experience of almost 28-29 years and I have never seen a child develop pneumonia after being administered the polio [vaccine] and brought to the hospital in severe condition,” Dr Hussain says.
The doctor mentioned that the polio vaccine has a minor side effect, which is an insignificant common fever and, that too, is only experienced by only a few children. One vial is enough to administer the polio vaccine drops to 18 children, but he adds that of the remaining 17 children who were given the vaccine, “no such report was received that a child developed such a complication”.
It appears to have been shared on TikTok as well.
Conclusion: The child died due to severe pneumonia, a condition in which food or liquid enters the airways or the lungs, and not due to the polio vaccine, according to the doctor who treated her. Zulfiqar Babakhel, the media manager at Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme’s NEOC, also refuted the claims circulating on social media.