A gargantuan anti-vax movement killing Muslim countries with Fake News

It is no secret that internet users have been tackling the problem of the anti-vaccination crowd in the United States, with a lot of articles and memes, to prevent the come back of dangerous diseases spread by the blind trust of fake news.

Nonetheless, the fight against the alleged link between autism and vaccines, that is being emphasized by anti-vaxxers – which was proven several times to be totally false and has never existed – seem to be perpetuating within the news being shared by media companies outside the United States.

While this might sound very positive, Muslim countries are falling behind in their roles of shedding knowledge on the fake news epidemic responsible in raising the numbers of people calling for a total boycott of vaccination, but for different reasons than just autism.

AKHTAR SOOMRO/REUTERS
AKHTAR SOOMRO/REUTERS

Repulsing injudiciously

As a journalist who follows what most of the Arab media is publishing, it clearly shows that nearly all of the news is solemnly taken from what American news companies are putting on the internet, plausibly because it is written in English.

But on the other side of the world, media companies in non-Arab Muslim countries, mainly east Asia, have been reporting for several years on the uprising numbers of diseases that should have been eradicated already, such as polio, but has been faced with a number fake news waves, expanding by instant messaging applications and social media, that has only pushed back people from receiving their vaccine shots.

Asim Hafeez/The National
Asim Hafeez/The National

For the love of Allah

In spite of “everything” social media platforms are introducing to curb the spread of misinformation, parents in Muslim countries, are worried or sure about grave risks from vaccines as it presumably contradicts their Islamic beliefs.

Fact checkers, journalists, medical authorities and even international organizations have constantly debunked the renegade assertion that vaccines are “Haram” because of the usage of pigs in it, the most forbidden animal in Islam.

“He has forbidden you only the Maytatah (dead animals), and blood, and the flesh of swine/pig, and that which is slaughtered as a sacrifice for others than Allah.”- (Quran 2:173)

At present, the biggest Muslim countries facing this problem is without dispute Pakistan, one of the three countries in the world where polio is endemic, besides Afghanistan (99.7% of the population are Muslims), Nigeria (~50% Muslim).

The anti-vaccine crowd weaponized by fake news and misinformation have reached a level where they don’t only refuse to take the vaccination, but also has begun killing health workers “spreading Haram and calls to disobey Allah between communities”.

Towards the end of April 2019, it was reported that at least three health workers have been killed in one month, which leads the authorities to suspend the anti-polio campaign “for an indefinite period” across the country.

According to a recent report by the German “Deutsche Welle”, at least 100 people have been killed in assaults targeting vaccine teams in Pakistan since 2012.

Polio, a highly infectious viral disease, mainly affecting children younger than five. It can cause permanent paralysis and death, but alongside polio, health officials are also suffering in giving out vaccines for MMR- measles, mumps, and rubella (German measles) that can cause birth defects or fetal death when mothers are infected during pregnancy.

K.M. Chaudary/Associated Press
K.M. Chaudary/Associated Press

Make-believes

Pakistan’s latest anti-polio campaign was hampered by social media reports and videos claiming numerous children had been killed by vaccines.

And because news travels fast, on August 2018, a branch of the most influential Islamic body in Indonesia (where 87.2% of the population are Muslims), the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), issued a fatwa against the use of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine because it contains porcine gelatine and is not halal.

But while the fatwa was released by one of the many branches of the MUI, it was ultimately overruled by a decision from the central Jakarta body and its chair Ma’ruf Amin, but the damage has been done and proliferated into many islamic communities around the world.

I should also add that alternative facts had currency long before social media started to be used, mainly with the help of radical groups that believed junk science, nutty hypotheses and showy apostasies that are based on rumors and rusty old translations, such as a myth claiming that “Coca-Cola logo if inverted will show the words No Mohammed, No Mecca”.

In Afghanistan, radical islamists claim that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) organized a fake vaccination drive to help track down Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad, where US forces later killed the al-Qaida leader in 2011.

Globally, religious concerns with vaccines account for 10% of the hesitancy to participate in vaccination programs, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) data.

Islamic concerns with vaccines continue despite a 2003 verdict that was reinforced with fatwas from three major islamic bodies, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Al-Azhar Al-Sharif, and Dar Al Ifta, stating that vaccines and gelatine medical capsules should be tolerated by observing Muslims.

Priorix vaccine (Rafferty Baker/CBC)
Priorix vaccine (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Islamic friendly vaccine

According to a report by Buzzfeed, there are two major brands of the MMR vaccine available globally: one is produced by British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) called Priorix and the other is made by the American vaccine manufacturer Merck & Co.

While it is true that Priorix contains gelatine made from pigs; the Merck & Co. vaccine, on the other hand, doesn’t use the gelatine but it does use cow products during manufacturing.

And while most of the islamic countries currently use a vaccine that contains porcine gelatine, it is a highly purified form that’s been broken down into small molecules in a process called “Istihala“ and it’s used as a stabilizer, to make sure that the vaccine remains safe and effective during storage and shipping.

Additional reasons why most health organizations go back to the “Haram” vaccination, is clearly the cost.

The GSK and Merck & Co. products are expensive; Australia uses the GSK vaccine but its price makes it inaccessible to low and middle-income countries for their vaccination programs.

Dr Anita Heywood from the University of NSW says that it may be possible for wealthier people to privately import the Merck & Co. vaccine but she notes that this special importation is not an option for most people, where most vaccination programs are free.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan. (A Majeed / AFP)
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. (A Majeed / AFP)

Government actions

For the moment, internet giants (Facebook, Twitter, Google) are doing little impact on the expansion of non-english fake news, which opens many doors for governmental intervention.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has urged the country’s telecoms regulator to take action against misinformation spread on social media discouraging vaccination against it and other diseases, as stated by Reuters.

The letter, which was dated March 7 and posted on Twitter was headed “Removal of Anti Vaccine Content from Facebook and YouTube”, including “I therefore look forward to your support in blocking out all anti-vaccine content from the Internet in Pakistan”.

But while we may look at this letter as a grateful push toward a more receptive community towards vaccines, many fear dangers of abusing the term “fake news” and transforming it as a tool for digital dictatorship by applying internet censorship and taking legal measures against its publishers.

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