Saturday, November 5, 2011

Polio Vaccine Myths Affecting Vaccination Campaign in Pakistan

This past Friday, the guardian printed an article about potential reasons for a rise in polio cases in Pakistan. Here is a summary:
In the federally administered tribal areas (Fata) of Pakistan, polio is on the rise. Within the Kyber Agency (a region within Fata) alone, it is estimated that more than 200,000 children have regularly missed immunization since 2009 and nationally 84 cases of polio have been reported so far this year.

What is causing so many people to not get their immunizations for polio, a potentially life threatening and crippling disease? While there is an inaccessibility problem due to security concerns, another huge reason for lack of immunization it seems is reluctance from parents perhaps related to beliefs in rumors about the negative health impacts the vaccine has.

The rumors often start when religious leaders launch campaigns against the polio vaccination through sermons and radio broadcasts. A very influential rumor begun by Maulana Fazlullah, a leader of a banned militant organization and important religious cleric, said that the polio drops cause impotency and infertility and it is an American conspiracy to sterilize and reduce the population of Muslims. Another rumor says that the polio drops are made out of pig fat and therefore forbidden by Muslims. In the past sermons have declared children who died or became paralyzed by the virus martyrs for not falling for western conspiracy.

It doesn’t help that most polio vaccines used in Pakistan are manufactured in WHO laboratories around the world including the USA. Furthermore, news reports about the fake vaccination campaign used by the CIA to track down Bin Laden only help strengthen misconceptions about the polio vaccine.

However, with the resurgence of polio, now religious leaders have joined the campaign led by the National Research and Development Foundation and Unicef to get rid of myths about the polio vaccine. About Five thousand scholars of the Deobandi sect (a school of religious thought which the majority of the people of the tribal belt belong to) have joined the campaign.

Clerics have helped resolve vaccine refusal cases, over 8,000 in Fata in one week of march alone. Religious scholars have issued Fatwas in favor of vaccinations. Health workers rely on working with religious scholars to successfully accomplish their education and vaccination campaigns. In some cases a scholar accompanies the health-worker in their rounds. Before parents would not even allow the health-workers to enter their homes. Now, the partnership with religious scholars and proving make the campaign a lot more successful.

Interestingly, clerics and religious scholars who support the vaccination campaign often take a quote from the Qur’an that sounds very similar to a possible modern public health mission statement. The quote talks about the importance of healing a single human being equal to healing human kind.

--Elena Jordan

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