Mujibur Rahman, a doctor, says that vaccines create autism. One of the self-proclaimed Bangladeshi anti-vaxxers, Dr Rahman has thousands of followers on YouTube and Facebook. His videos get millions of views on YouTube.
"Every step (of Covid-19 protections guided by the WHO) including wearing masks or using antiseptic to clean hands is wrong," Dr Mujib said in a show hosted by another popular doctor named Jahangir Kabir. Dr Kabir also commands millions of followers on social media.
In that show, Dr Kabir hinted at how wearing masks and other protections couldn't save hundreds of doctors' lives but nothing happened to those who didn't wear masks. The doctor asked the audience to "think" because they cannot say everything.
"We have bindings, viewers. We cannot say everything." He said they were being "diplomatic."
More recently, Dr Jahangir can be found asking people to follow health instructions and get vaccine shots, but at the same time, have you missed his viral video claiming how vaccines' stronger antibodies inhibit our nonspecific natural antibody? Indeed, diplomatic and subtle.
Now, Dr Rahman sells "anti-inflammatory, anti-oxide, and antiviral" herbal medicines to cure Covid-19 by "activating the immune system" that apparently, in his opinion, is the only way to prevent coronavirus infection. If you take his medicines, you don't need "masks, social distance or lockdowns," Dr Mujib said in one of his YouTube videos.
In a country full of nonsense propaganda against vaccines, for instance vaccines could change your gender, it is not hard to imagine what kind of impact such activities orchestrated by well-known doctors can create.
Facebook and YouTube, their tools to engage with common people, have certain rules and regulations against misinformation.
We often get reports of social media taking action against anti-vaxxers. But when it comes to Bangladeshi anti-vaxxers, the social media giants seem to turn a blind eye.
The doctors mentioned are not alone. There are persistent propaganda campaigns against the vaccine drive from many vested groups on social media. Another Facebook user for example, "Noyon Chatterjee 6", has more than one lakh followers on Facebook. Visit his page sometime, you will be shocked seeing his persistent anti-vaccine campaign.
These social media-based anti-vaxxers have thousands of ardent followers in Bangladesh. The impact?
Visit the villages.
Ruhul Amin, a Dhaka College economics student, registered his parents and uncles for the vaccine during the first vaccination (Covishield) rollout.
On the vaccine day, none of them appeared at the centre. Why? They told Ruhul that the vaccine would kill them. They were not worried about Covid-19 infection, but the vaccine - the saviour - was a nightmare, they said.
"My uncle took the vaccine last week only after a fever wore him down. Even though he had all the symptoms he never went to get tested (for covid19), but he did become scared."
The anti-vaxxers' misinformation campaign, indeed, is a global problem. Have you read Sheera Frankel's story titled "The Most Influential Spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation Online" published in The New York Times last week?
The story is about the US osteopathic physician Joseph Mercola.
While Dr Mujib would campaign for "activating immunity" by spreading scepticism about vaccination saying that it causes autism, Mercola would say the vaccine shots "alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch."
They preach misinformation differently, but the target is the same. They are discouraging people from getting vaccinated and profiting from the sales of their own "alternate" medicines to vaccination. Just like Dr Mujib, Joseph Mercola also sells his own medicine and pocketed millions of dollars.
The Business Standard reached out to Dr Mujibur about his claims that vaccines create autism and about the medicines he sells as the panacea to coronavirus.
"I am doing everything which is not certified by WHO. For me they are a mafia group and WHO is responsible for our health problems. I don't follow the so-called scientists. I tested my treatment method in my clinic and it works 100%. So, I only follow myself and my teachers," the doctor replied.
We asked Dr. Fazle Rabbi Chowdhury, an assistant professor at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, about the doctor's autism allegations. "There is no possible relation between covid vaccine and autism. Vaccinology is now a far advanced science maintaining a high level of safety," Dr Chowdhury explained.
"There is a hoax which was publicised before, against all vaccines starting from polio, DPT and others. This propaganda by a vested quarter was never successful. Same is happening against the Covid-19 vaccine," he added.
YouTube has a clear policy that reads it "doesn't allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts local health authority information or World Health Organization (WHO) medical information about Covid-19."
This is limited to content that contradicts guidance from the WHO or local health authorities on: prevention, transmission, diagnosis, treatment, social distancing and self-isolation guidelines etc.
The Facebook policy also reads that they "remove Covid-19 related misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm."
The policy remains all but on paper when it comes to Bangla contents.
When it comes to Bangla content, the anti-vaxxers here have been overlooked and don't be surprised if they are indulged with money from Google AdSense.
The Business Standard obtained allegations from some social media users that even after they flagged some of the misinformation contents, Facebook and YouTube never really took them down.
We reached out to Facebook and YouTube for comments. Facebook responded through their PR agency in Bangladesh and asked us to provide them some links.
In response, The Business Standard instead asked if the Facebook team didn't really know about such content which are publicly available, and what steps they take to prevent misinformation in Bangla.
We haven't received a reply, as of this writing. And YouTube also didn't respond to our queries.
We asked Dr A M Zakir Hussain, a former Director, Primary Health Care & Diseases Control, and IEDCR, what impact could these doctors' actions leave for Bangladesh's vaccine drive.
"It is the responsibility of the DGHS and the ministry to check these irrational claims," Dr Hussain told TBS. In response to Dr Mujib's autism theory, Dr Hussain said, "Science doesn't believe in anything until/unless proven."
He also cautioned that since many in Bangladesh, irrespective of education background, tend to overlook experts' advice and follow whatever pleases them, such campaigns from a vested quarter of anti-vaxxers could cause serious damage to the vaccination rollout programmes in Bangladesh.
"Many people tend to grab various kinds of information on social media. Therefore, if any medical graduate (doctor) delivers a message on vaccines or other health-related issues, people easily trust those words and their impact is higher compared to others," said Dr Chowhdury.
"If a doctor spreads misinformation and false information about the Covid-19 vaccine, it could create 'vaccine hesitancy'. We have to vaccinate at least 70% of our population as soon as possible. An irresponsible and misleading comment could hinder this drive and it is not at all acceptable."
According to Bangladesh Communicable Disease (prevention, control and elimination) Act, 2018, spreading false and unscientific information on any contagious disease is a punishable act. "The law enforcement agencies should apply this law for the greater interest of the community and the country," Dr. Chowdhury added.