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Polio vaccination plan triggers killings, arson, public hysteria in Pakistan

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: polio vaccination teams attacked, clinic torched in Pakistan; with more provinces leaning Conservative, federal politicians face interesting times; Japan and France have lessons for Canadian workplaces.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Children are rushed to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, on April 22 after complaining of feeling unwell after receiving state-sponsored polio vaccinations. Doctors denied reports linking the childrens' condition with the vaccine, saying the symptoms were the product of panic as rumours about reactions to the vaccine spread. (Arshad Arbab/EPA-EFE)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • A drive to eradicate polio in Pakistan this week has sparked killings, arson and public hysteria.
  • With most provinces now leaning Conservative and a rise in Green votes, these are interesting times for federal politicians.
  • When it comes to protecting people from excessive pressures in the workplace, there are lessons to be learned from places like Japan and France.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

Osama bin Laden's polio legacy

Vaccine hesitancy has been identified as one of the top threats to global health, but in Pakistan the pushback against inoculation has become a deadly concern.

A government polio worker was shot dead today in an ambush in Balochistan province, near the Afghan border, and one of her colleagues was critically wounded. The attack follows the murders of two policemen  in the country's northwest tribal regions earlier this week as they stood guard over vaccination teams.

The killings bring the number of vaccine martyrs in Pakistan to at least 95 since late 2012.

Pakistani police officers salute during a funeral in Bannu on Tuesday for a colleague who was shot while escorting polio workers during a three-day nationwide vaccination campaign. (Abdul Haseeb/Associated Press)

On Monday, a mob ransacked and set fire to a health clinic near Peshawar, as part of wider panic over a supposedly spoiled batch of polio vaccine. The doctors and nurses had to take refuge in a local public school, protected by a heroic principal who refused to allow the angry crowd inside.

Rumours of children falling ill after receiving oral doses of the polio vaccine ran rampant in the region this week, leading to more than 40,000 emergency room visits over complaints of stomach pain, dizziness and vomiting. But Pakistani authorities say that all the symptoms were panic-induced, and that tests on nine different batches of the vaccine show that it is perfectly safe.

Pakistan is one of just three nations, along with Afghanistan and Nigeria, where the wild polio virus remains endemic. Last year, the country recorded 12 of the 33 global cases of the now-preventable disease, which can cause paralysis in children and once sickened millions. So far in 2019, Pakistan has had nine more cases.

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government has set a goal of making the country polio-free, and has launched a national vaccination push that saw more than 262,000 health workers fan out across the country this week, protected by 151,000 police.

A family member rushes a girl to a hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Monday. School children complained of nausea and vomiting after being given polio vaccinations, but doctors said their symptoms were 'panic induced' by false rumours about a bad batch of vaccine. (Muhammad Sajjad/Associated Press)

There remains, however, a hardcore subset of vaccine refusers, mostly along the restive frontier with Afghanistan, where many subscribe to Taliban-spread rumours about the safety and true purpose of the inoculations.

In the past, people have been told that the polio vaccine contains pork products, or George W. Bush's urine, and that it is part of a wider plot to make Muslims infertile.

There were also suggestions that health workers were in fact foreign-paid spies, collecting information for U.S. military bombings and drone strikes.

Such wild tales took on the currency of fact after the 2011 revelation of a CIA-backed attempt to gain access to Osama bin Laden's hidey-hole in Abbottabad via a local vaccine campaign.

The inoculations were legitimate and designed to offer children protection from hepatitis B. The spy agency's plan to collect the used needles and test them for DNA to confirm who lived in high-walled compound failed because none of the kids were at home at the time.

The ruse did, however, yield a vital piece of information — the name and cellphone number of the purported owner of the property, bin Laden's courier and protector. And a few months later, a team of U.S. Navy Seals staged their late-night raid, killing the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

Shakil Afridi, the local doctor who was overseeing the vaccinations, has always maintained that he was hired by Save the Children and knew nothing of the CIA plot. (He remains in solitary confinement in a Pakistani prison, serving a 23-year sentence for his supposed links to a banned militant group.)

In this family photo, Shakil Afridi stands third from the left. The now-jailed Pakistani doctor has denied accusations of having been recruited by the CIA to help find Osama bin Laden through a vaccination program. (SS Mirza/AFP/Getty Images)

Not that it matters to the Taliban, who issued a fatwa in the summer of 2012 specifically forbidding polio vaccinations. The group has since waged a campaign of arson, shootings and roadside bombings targeting hospitals, health workers and their police escorts.

That terror campaign, and the generalized distrust of vaccines, sparked a real resurgence of polio in Pakistan.

By 2014, the country had 327 new cases, and the disease, which is spread by person-to-person contact, had travelled along with militants and their families into Afghanistan, and then Syria and Iraq.

Local residents gather Tuesday outside a health centre on the outskirts of Peshawar that was torched by a mob following rumours of children having a reaction to polio vaccinations. (Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

Of course, the link between conspiracies and vaccine hesitancy isn't just a problem in Pakistan.

The now thoroughly discredited 1998 research paper that suggested a possible tie between autism and the MMR vaccine spawned a global anti-vaxxer movement, which has led to millions of unvaccinated children and mushrooming outbreaks of measles, another potentially deadly but easily preventable disease. (The United States, for example, now has 681 active cases across 22 states, the most in almost 20 years.)

In fact, opinion surveys suggest that vaccine hesitancy is far bigger problem in European nations than in the Muslim world.

But there does appear to be a common link — zealotry.

A study published in February mapped the strength of anti-vax sentiments in Western Europe and found that it mirrored the rise populist political movements.

A recent paper from a Spanish think-tank found that supporters of Pakistan's most militant Islamist parties were nine to 13 per cent less likely than their neighbours to have their kids vaccinated.

At Issue

With most provinces now leaning Conservative and a rise in Green votes, these are interesting times for federal politicians, writes producer Arielle Piat-Sauvé.

It's not often that P.E.I. politics makes big news right across the country, but on Tuesday night it wasn't just Islanders watching the election results come in.

The polls were calling for a three-way race, with a chance we'd see the first-ever Green Party government in the country. While that didn't happen, the election was still historic. The province saw its first minority government in modern history, and the Greens formed the official opposition for the first time anywhere in Canada.

With eight seats on the Island, these Green MLAs join a growing number of recently elected Greens in Ontario, New Brunswick and B.C.

As Éric Grenier points out, this breakthrough also leaves the party a little disappointed and wondering what could have been.

But the question now is whether this will translate into votes for the Greens come October, and what that would mean for the Liberals and the NDP. What does this growing fragmentation of votes bode for Canada's electoral system? Andrew Coyne had some thoughts on that.

Whatever happens six months from now with the Greens, P.E.I. is also the latest province that has gone blue (remember that map we highlighted in last week's At Issue panel).

Progressive Conservative leader Dennis King, accompanied by his wife Jana Hemphill, left, celebrates with supporters in Charlottetown after winning the Prince Edward Island provincial election on Tuesday. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

That means with the exception of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and British Columbia, most provinces are now leaning Conservative.

It's not an unusual phenomenon to have a federal government of one colour and provincial governments of another — think back to what the map looked like when Stephen Harper left.

But we'll see how much that blue surge helps or hurts both the incumbent government and the official opposition in the run-up to the federal election this fall.

On another note, the tone of the P.E.I. election seemed to be a lot more cordial than what we recently saw in Alberta. Just look at how the premier-designate and the leader of the Green Party greeted each other yesterday.

We'll tackle all of this tonight on At Issue. Andrew Coyne, Althia Raj and Éric Grenier will join host Rosie Barton.

Hope you can tune in!

- Arielle Piat-Sauvé

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'Overwork' is a matter of perspective

When it comes to protecting people from excessive pressures in the workplace, there are lessons to be learned from places like Japan and France, writes hard-working producer Anand Ram.

The grand irony, not lost on me, is how stressful co-producing The National's "Burnout: Stress at Work" series has been.

Take tonight's Question segment: How do we protect against overwork?

Getting at the heart of that country's stressful work culture involved several midnight calls to Japan, talking to labour and stress researchers, and navigating the language divide. And let's just say I can't complain too much, given how much harder and later that country works.

Japanese workers are among the worst offenders for unused vacation time — many feel guilty for taking one. And a researcher told me white- and blue-collar employees alike feel they can't leave the office until the whole team has finished their tasks for the day.

Commuters stream through ticket gates during the morning rush hour at Ikebukuro Station in Tokyo. The nation, known for its high-pressure job culture, has a specific word for death from overwork: karoshi. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images)

For a country that has its own well-worn term for death from overwork – karoshi – it's surprising, then, that for the first time there are now new legal caps on overtime for major companies. The new law considers 45 hours of overtime a month, and 100 hours of OT during "busy" periods, a reasonable limit.

But how effective are limits when the culture of overwork is so deeply rooted?

Tonight on The National we look at conditions in Japan, as well as France where worker protections are much stronger (some might say too much so), and at what Canada can learn from them when tackling stress in the workplace.

Hope you'll watch, because I'll be here late putting that piece together (I'm not complaining).

- Anand Ram

More from The National's series on work in Canada:

Quote of the moment

"The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy – everything that has made America America – is at stake. That's why today I'm announcing my candidacy for president of the United States."

- Former Vice-President Joe Biden finally enters the race for the Democratic Party nomination, with a pointed attack on Donald Trump.

Former Vice-President Joe Biden would be the oldest U.S. president in history if elected in November 2020. (Darron Cummings/Associated Press)

What The National is reading

  • U.S.-led coalition killed 1,600 civilians in Syria's Raqqa, Amnesty says (CBC)
  • Sri Lanka spice tycoon held on suspicion of helping sons in suicide attacks (CNN)
  • More than 1 million beverage containers go missing a day in B.C.: report (Vancouver Sun)
  • Climate-change protesters glue themselves to the London Stock Exchange (CBC)
  • Rohingya should relocate to remote island to avoid landslides: Bangladesh minister (Reuters)
  • Russian ministry moves to ban personal imports of parmesan and jamon (Moscow Times)
  • Why film translators are in a war of words over subtitles (Guardian)
  • Rami Malek to play James Bond villain (BBC)

Today in history

April 25, 1969: Back to the land

Angus Cherrington is having difficulty finding enough people who want to "redeem their society's sickened soul" via a pioneer-style, deep woods colony in British Columbia. He tells CBC's Take 30 that he has only ever really felt alive in the toughest of circumstances, such as Arctic expeditions or his stint as an SAS officer in the jungles of Malaya. Still, where he failed, others are thriving, tapping into a distaste for the modern world and a counterculture "back to the land" movement.

Modern-day pioneers turn their backs on everyday conveniences to try living off the land. 25:49

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.