Law Would Jail Parents Whose Children Aren't Vaccinated

Skepticism in Pakistan has turned violent
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 1, 2023 11:25 AM CDT
Polio Vaccination Effort May Include Threat of Prison
A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a child at a railway station in Karachi, Pakistan, on Sept 18.   (AP Photo/Fareed Khan)

Authorities in one Pakistan province are turning to a contentious new tactic in the decades-long initiative to wipe out polio: prison. Last month, the government in Sindh introduced a bill, now in the final stages of becoming law, that would imprison parents for up to one month if they fail to get their children immunized against polio or eight other common diseases, the AP reports. Experts at the World Health Organization and elsewhere worry the unusual strategy could further undermine trust in the polio vaccines, particularly in a country where many believe false conspiracies about them and where dozens of vaccinators have been shot and killed.

Adding to the problems faced by experts trying to convince people of the vaccines' safety: The oral vaccines themselves now cause most polio cases worldwide. WHO's polio director in the Eastern Mediterranean warned the new law could backfire. "Coercion is counterproductive," said Dr. Hamid Jafari. He said health workers have typically succeeded in raising immunization rates in vaccine-hesitant areas by figuring out the reasons for people's refusal and addressing those concerns, often by bringing in a trusted political or religious leader to talk with people. "My own sense is that Pakistan wants to have this legislation in their back pocket in case they need it," Jafari said. "I would be surprised if there's a willingness to actually enforce these coercive measures."

Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan are the only countries where the spread of polio has never been stopped. The potentially fatal, paralyzing disease mostly strikes children up to age 5 and typically spreads in contaminated water. WHO and its partners have administered billions of vaccine doses since they first began trying to eradicate the disease in 1988. The effort costs nearly $1 billion a year and is largely funded by donor countries and private organizations including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The immunizations, given to children as drops in the mouth, have reduced polio cases by more than 99%, per the AP. But in very rare cases, the live virus in the vaccine can cause polio or mutate into a strain that triggers a new outbreak.

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So far this year, there have been seven cases of polio caused by the wild virus, all in Pakistan and Afghanistan. More than 270 cases have been caused by a virus linked to the vaccine in 21 countries. In January, roughly 62,000 parents, mostly in Pakistan's Sindh province, refused polio vaccinations for their children, prompting authorities there to propose the new law with penalties. The law would punish parents with up to a month in prison for failing to vaccinate their children; they could also be fined up to $168. Diseases including measles, pneumonia, and pertussis are also in the legislation. A London expert said it was disheartening that people were so mistrustful of the government but said jailing parents won't help. "Not only does it not work, but it's likely to ramp up the anger," Heidi Larson said.

(Read more Pakistan stories.)

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