Polio: How Pakistani Media Can ‘Capitalize’ on Ignorance

Stop Polio red sign with sun background

Image: Dreamstime

Polio – one of the most politicized and commercialized diseases that has been cashed on both local and global scales. Of the many stories of misinformation and twisted facts about polio, a recent one in a popular Pakistani paper made me wonder whether it’s a matter of ignorance or simply a dramatic exhibition of naïve journalism that ignored basic facts. Or perhaps, it’s the paper’s knowledge of the ignorance of its readership that allows such editorial liberties.

Let’s get to the story. Titled “Polio-positive child escapes disability” and published in Pakistan’s oldest and most prestigious English daily Dawn, this story starts with a near exclamatory statement of how a little boy in Punjab province, who had tested positive for poliovirus, was not paralyzed by the disease. The paper called it a “rare precedent”.

Soon after it, a doctor – head of the province’s immunization program – is quoted by the paper telling how the “experts” were surprised to find the boy was “walking, playing, and even running” despite contracting poliovirus. And this expression of astonishment continues to fill the story as the experts are cited to conclude that the case of the boy – vaccinated 15 times – appears to be “a step towards eradication of disease.”

For those who don’t know the basic facts about polio might be wondering at this point what’s odd or funny about this story. Well, it’s just that the devil is in the basics. When we say somebody got polio, many readers’ minds probably jump to the image of a crippled, paralyzed child who can’t move and is lying in a wheelchair or on a bed with his/her deformed legs and a twisted neck – a living dead. The fact: it’s not at all so. Polio basics show that about 96 percent of children (or adults for that) who contract poliovirus don’t develop any symptoms or a few mild flu-like symptoms that go away on their own or with common medication, but nothing serious.

Less than one percent of people contracting the virus actually develop paralysis. Even of those cases, the paralysis isn’t necessarily permanent but in some cases is temporary – treatable with physical therapy and exercise etc. The incidence of debilitating, permanent paralytic polio is rare. Whether it was that rare in history is disputed, especially when it comes to beliefs about accurate diagnosis and reliability of sources.

With this in perspective, the astonishment expressed in Dawn’s story can be seen as no less than a wonder in itself. It’s just like somebody walking in on you while you are eating and telling you “Wow, you are chewing on food and you are still alive!”

Not to miss in this kind of misleading writing about polio is the editorial naivety – or perhaps deliberate misleading by doctors (for I assume they do know the basics) – of omitting any mention of the paralytic polio called vaccine-associated paralytic polio (VAPP). This kind of polio is caused by the poliovirus that comes from the oral polio vaccine (OPV). Since the introduction of this vaccine, a large number of such polio cases have happened among populations in different parts of the world. Of the most well-documented, recent ones is the Nigeria outbreak of vaccine-derived polio paralysis that paralyzed over 300 children.

The fact that the Pakistani child was given 15 doses of OPV and that the virus in the vaccine is excreted by a vaccinated child for a few weeks to about over a month would actually make one suspect whether the poliovirus actually was vaccine-derived. In other words, is the vaccine so erroneously hailed for making the child run and play was in fact the source of the virus detected in the child’s body? Unfortunately, since the medical labs work under the control of the authorities, we can hardly expect independent verification of the nature or source of the virus.

The fun side of misinformation aside, the story of this Pakistani paper, and others like it, remind us the need for being careful in reading and fact checking, for its mindfulness that ultimately saves you and whose lack means doom, whether brought on by people, nature, or both.


About the Author

Ernest Dempsey is a writer, editor, blogger, and journalist based in Orlando, FL. He runs a popular blog Word Matters! at http://www.ernestdempsey.com/ and edits the journal and its blog Recovering the Self. Dempsey is a sceptic, vegetarian, and advocate for animal and human rights.