As published in the Guardian on Friday, November 4th’2011
Militancy in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas (Fata) has triggered a different kind of ordeal; the resurgence of polio or infantile paralysis – a potentially fatal and paralysing disease that mostly affects children, pregnant women and the elderly. Being one of the four countries where polio is still endemic, it has become a cause of concern for neighbouring countries such as China where a recent case of wild polio virus (WPV1) was genetically linked to Pakistan.
In the Khyber Agency, more than 200,000 children have regularly missed immunisation since 2009, and as many as 84 nationwide cases of polio have been reported this year. Apart from inaccessibility due to security concerns, one of the reasons for lack of immunisation is reluctance from the parents, stemming from rumours that polio drops cause impotency and infertility.
These rumours first surfaced when Maulana Fazlullah, leader of a banned militant organisation and an influential religious cleric in the tribal areas, launched a campaign against polio vaccination through his daily sermons. Sermons through radio and mosque loudspeakers denounced polio vaccination as an American ploy to sterilise and reduce the population of Muslims.
Polio vaccines used in Pakistan are manufactured in WHO laboratories around the world, including the United States, which makes them a source of resentment for the militant groups. While the Tehreek-i-Taliban and other groups opposing polio drops claimed that the vaccinations were made out of pig fat and hence forbidden for Muslims, some of these sermons declared any child who got paralysed or died of polio a martyr, for refusing to fall for a western conspiracy.
News reports of CIA’s fake vaccination campaign during the search for Bin Laden has further strengthened these misconceptions.
Now religious scholars have joined the campaign to dismantle the myths and battle the resurgence of polio. A campaign led by National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF) in partnership with Unicef has brought together more than 5,000 of them, working on provincial and district levels, to tackle the issue. The group comprises of scholars belonging to the Deobandi sect, a school of thought followed by the majority of population in the tribal belt.
In Fata, clerics helped resolve 8,120 vaccine refusal cases during a week-long campaign in March this year. Another 160 religious scholarsfrom Swat have issued a Fatwa in favour of the vaccinations. A campaign, starting this month, will be led by Shia scholars as it expands to the Parachinar valley, where the majority of the population are Shia Muslims.
A team of health workers and religious scholars are working together on this project. Zahid Akhtar, a project manager at the NRDF, believes that the religious scholars have played a pivotal role in convincing people:
“They have used their power of communication by clearing misconceptions during the special sermons on Fridays. Some of the scholars accompanied teams during our door-to-door campaign convincing parents, at a time where most of them would not even allow health workers to enter their premises”
Akhtar recalls parents who believed that vaccinating their children would be interfering with God’s will, others were sceptical “We have no food or clean water to drink, why is the government so concerned about polio?
“Some parents go as far as demanding a sack of flour or clean water in return for agreeing to get their children immunised. This is where the authorities need to step in and address issues of poverty and hunger. As far as religious misconceptions are concerned, we have seen them change: it’s the clerics that informed them, often quoting verses in the Qur’an about the importance of healing a single human being equal to healing humankind”
Both the NRDF and Unicef are working under immense pressure to meet their goal for the eradication of polio by December 2012. Even though Akhtar is hopeful and considers the goals achievable, the uncertainty surrounding military operations in tribal areas, the rising resentment against American-based organisations and the recent dismantling of the national ministry of health will continue to be a major hindrance.
Religion may have started this problem. Religion is also helping to solve it. But in Pakistan, religion, war, poverty and politics are all entangled and the country’s problems cannot be solved without addressing all these things.
- Muslim scholars fight to dispel polio vaccination myths in Pakistan | Sana Saleem (guardian.co.uk)
- Polio (education.com)
- UN warns on Pakistan polio rates (bbc.co.uk)
- You: High risk of polio spreading from Pakistan, warns UN (nation.com.pk)
- David Salisbury: Polio – a scourge that should be wiped out (independent.co.uk)
- India ‘close to wiping out polio’ (bbc.co.uk)