Wailing parents carrying babies in their laps rushed to hospitals in whatever transport they could gather when rumour spread through Kashmir Valley on Sunday that children were dying after they were given anti-polio drops.
The rumour started on social networking sites, with WhatsApp and mobile phone calls doing the rest. Within hours, streets choked with cars, autos, jeeps, load carriers and buses carrying weeping mothers and their babies.
In Srinagar, authorities were forced to close the out-patient section of GB Pant children’s hospital for some time as thousands of people thronged the premises. Similar mayhem was witnessed outside SMHS, JLNM and SKIMS hospitals.
People pushed and shoved demanding doctors for an “antidote”. When some doctors tried to reason with them, the agitated parents allegedly assaulted them.
Authorities requested radio and television stations to broadcast the official statement dismissing the rumour while mosques made announcements asking parents not to panic.
Police were trying to trace Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups and online sites responsible for fanning the rumour.
Health secretary Mandeep Bhandari said 1.95 million children were given the vaccine at polio eradication centres across Jammu and Kashmir on Sunday and the state had received 2.5 million units of polio drops from the Union health and family welfare ministry.
“Even my child has been given polio drops today. There is no truth in reports of adverse reaction from polio drops from any part of state. We have ascertained the facts,” he said. “Tomorrow and day after, these will be administered door to door.”
Officials said some prankster started the rumour or it could be the handiwork of rabble-rousers trying to foment trouble in the Muslim-majority Valley.
They dismissed reports of any child death because of the government-run immunization programme, called Pulse Polio, where camps are held and volunteers go door to door to give drops of the vaccine to children below five years.
State immunization officer Yangchuk Dolma said no incident of a child falling sick or dying because of the polio drops have been reported by district medical officers.
Health services director Sumir J Mattoo thought a prankster was trying to harass parents on a Sunday when most public services remain closed and not doctors attend hospitals. “Please tell everyone that the children who have taken polio drops are safe,” he told media outlets.
The Centre asked the state administration to counter the misinformation. The Union health ministry said such rumours were unfortunate because these ultimately affected the common people.
Former chief minister Omar Abdullah did his bit too to appeal for calm. “Everyone must play whatever part they can to stop this attempt at using rumours to spread unnecessary panic,” he tweeted.
The clarifications and announcement had little effect, though. Long queues were witnessed outside hospitals even late in the evening.
(With agency inputs)