Jahalat: Polio Vaccination Campaign Facing Threats

Posted on May 4, 2007
Filed Under >Darwaish, Education, Health & Disease, Religion, Society
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Poliomyelitis (polio) is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. There are thousands of Polio patients in Pakistan whose lives have been severely affected by this frustrating disease. Since 1988 when a worldwide campaign against Polio was launched, the number of new Polio cases in Pakistan has also decreased significantly and government has been trying its best to make Pakistan a Polio free country. Both government and NGO sectors are receiving substantial funding from United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization (WHO)

However, last few anti-polio campaigns are facing stiff resistance from local religious leaders in a number of areas in NWFP and FATA. During anti-polio campaign in February, the parents of 24,000 children in northern Pakistan refused to allow health workers to administer polio vaccinations, mostly due to rumors that the harmless vaccine was an American plot to sterilize innocent Muslim children. Some of the local religious leaders in the Swat, Bajaur and Malakand agencies are telling the people not to get their children vaccinated since the practice is un-Islamic, and that those that die of polio would be considered martyrs. The disinformation – spread by extremist clerics using mosque loudspeakers and illegal radio stations, and by word of mouth – has caused a sharp jump in polio cases in Pakistan and hit global efforts to eradicate the debilitating disease.

There are about 12 illegal FM radio channels in just Swat valley only and almost all of them are used by religious clerics for the propagation of their own interpretation of Islam and religious thoughts. Every sermon includes something on girl’s education and anti-polio campaign. This is Jahalat at its best and some of the local religious leaders in their anti-American sentiment and personal interests have gone so blind that they are putting thousands of innocent children’s future at stake. The lack of awareness among ordinary people is also playing its part. Although most of the mainstream religious leaders have publicly condemned these acts but the government of NWFP seems to be struggling to use an iron hand against these people and their activities. Aid workers and health officials in FATA and NWFP are now carrying with them copies of Fatwa’s signed by Qazi Hussain Ahmad and Moulana Fazal Ur Rehman in favor of vaccination that has reassured many doubters.

The latest campaign against polio vaccination has been launched by local clerics, including Tehreek Nifaz Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) leader Maulana Fazlullah and his supporters in the Malakand Agency, Bajaur and Swat. They have been “warning” people during sermons in mosques or through illegal FM radio stations not to administer polio drops to their children since it was against religious norms and brought infertility. Maulana Fazlullah is himself suffering from Polio and is also the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad, ex-chief of the TNSM. Because of this propaganda and fear of militants like Fazlullah, almost 4,000 children were not vaccinated in Swat only. A journalist Behroz Khan, who met Maulana Fazlullah, writes in KyberWatch:

Wearing a black turban and war fatigues, controversial cleric Maulana Fazlullah met journalists on Tuesday at his under-construction headquarters on the bank of the Swat River. Apart from so many controversies surround the Maulana, including his opposition to girls education, campaign against polio drops, motivating the youth for Jihad, encouraging men to grow beard and favoring closure of music shops, he is at the centre of criticism for illegally occupying hundreds of Kanals of land on the bank of the river, which is collective property (shamilaat) of Maam Derai and Koza Bandai villages (Ah, looks like its all about illegally occupying land in the name of religion. Lal Masjid rings a bell?).

Defending his opposition to girls education, the Maulana said that women should not go outside their homes, so there is no need to send girls to schools in violation of “the strict Islamic rule of Purdah”. “The only permission for a woman to go outside is to see a doctor in case of bad health. There is no need to impart engineering and scientific knowledge to women at all,” he said when asked whether he was in favor of sending girls to schools even in Purdah.

Being himself a victim of polio disease, the Maulana is preaching against administering polio drops to children, saying that there is no room in Shariah to go for treatment when the disease has not affected some one. Furthermore, he said that polio drops are disastrous for women fertility and expedite the process of puberty of girls. “Any one dies of polio is martyr because this is a contagious disease.

Unfortunately, awareness campaigns against this Jahalat have also become a very risky business these days. According to this story by DAWN, this year on Feb 16, Dr. Abdul Ghani Khan along with three other health officials were killed in a remote control bomb explosion when they were coming back from a Polio awareness campaign. The three officials with Dr. Sahab were critically injured in that incident but later died according to this Daily Times report.

Dr. Ghani, a surgeon, was very actively trying to raise awareness against Polio in Bajaur Agency and nearby villages. He was apparently coming back a successful meeting with local clerics. Its really sad that their sacrifice got only one-line news and nobody bothered to ask government to punish the people behind it. According to WHO officials, health workers had been facing serious threats by the locals during the anti-polio campaigns and the authorities were being contacted for provision of security but not much has been done. Recently aid workers in Bannu, near North Waziristan, were sent a letter and a 500 rupee (£4.50) note. “The letter said they had a choice. They could either stop work or buy their own coffin.” I hope that government pays special attention to security arrangements this year and the vaccination campaign goes smoothly.

I had this post planned since February but my laziness always got in the way. But last night when I saw this latest news story in GEO about militants successfully stopping a vaccination campaign in Swat area, I just had to write about it. The harsh reality is that Pakistan has now truly become Masailistaan and even after 60 years, we are still struggling to solve even basic issues. Its so depressing to see the number of issues that can easily be resolved just by spreading awareness and providing basic education to people and yet, we are unable to do even that effectively.

The only hope is people like Dr. Abdul Ghani Khan who are willing to sacrifice their lives so that our future how can we help the artists or others who do a great service for Pakistan but live their life in misery or their families face hardships after they die. I think we can also start by doing something good for the families of these four unsung heroes. They are the people who inspire and motivate thousands of ordinary people to do whatever they can to fight Jahalat in any form. My tribute to Dr. Khan and his three colleagues who gave their lives away for a noble cause. “Jihad against Jihalat” is the real Jihad that we need today and this is what our religious leaders should promote.

Background information about Polio:

According to WHO sources, poliomyelitis is an acute viral infection of the nervous system. Worldwide more than half of infections are in children under five. One in two hundred infections leads to permanent paralysis, usually in the legs. In 5-10% of these cases the victims die when the breathing muscles are paralyzed.

Since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988 the number of reported cases worldwide has fallen from 350,000 to 1,968 – a decrease of over 99%. Today it remains endemic in four countries: Nigeria, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan (there are 33,000 polio patients in Pakistan). In 1988 affected countries numbered 125. While there remains no cure for polio the progress towards its eradication is due to widespread use of polio vaccines. By 2002 the WHO had certified 124 countries polio-free.

More than 2 billion children have been immunized against the disease since 1988. The WHO estimates that because of the initiative five million fewer people have been paralyzed by the disease.

64 responses to “Jahalat: Polio Vaccination Campaign Facing Threats”

  1. AKRAM LAHORI says:

    If we spent less time on this religion and politics stuff and more on caring for our children our deen and duniya would both be better.

  2. Champa says:

    Its disgusting to see how some people are trying to disturb a humanitarian campaign.

    I also think that Moulana or Mullah is a respectable term and therefore we should not make fun of those when discussing mistakes made by some misguided ignorants. Don\’t insult these terms by giving them to every uneducated (religiously or otherwise) and narrow-minded person.

    God save our kids from these monsters.

  3. Naveed says:

    I’m cringing typing a post here at this point of time because the chances of it being misunderstood are pretty high. But please read the entire reply before coming to a conclusion upon what I have to say.

    I just wanted to point out a couple of things though. In this whole episode its easy to lay the blame on one particular group i.e. islamic ‘factions’ or international donor agencies and pharmaceutical companies, but seldom is it as simple as that. No doubt that the WHO and these pharmas are doing excellent work in providing these vaccinations but a recent report damns the delivery process (I will post the link to the report as soon as I remember it). The polio vaccination is ‘denatured’ of sorts under extreme temperatures, the likes of which are found in africa and asia. The result is that there have been incidents of polio in Pakistan even when a child has had 9 immunizations (fact documented by either dawn or the news I forget). Considering that people consider vaccination to be a 100% effective, a village individual will sense foul-play if the immunization is ineffective. In this context international donor agencies need to take the delivery methodology for the project into account.

    As for incidents of cancer and infertility as a result of the polio vaccine, well the human endocrinology system is far from being completely understood and regardless of what the media tells us, the cause-effect relationship between drugs and side-effects are seldom understood especially in the case of long term effects like cancer and infertility. A simple search in major science journals will prove that fact.

    If one were to implement some sort of fertility planning on a mass scale, then there are better ways to do it. Vaccinations are given to a few generations after which some level of immunity is developed within new borns. A better way would be to use some food item that is being constantly utilized by the entire population. ‘Iodine mila namak’ was one such scheme that was aimed at regulating iodine deficiency by the government but came across a lot of skepticism by people that believed it to be a way of enforcing family planning.

    The blame game, flared tempers and one sided points of view seldom help address the victims of the problem. Please your all better than that.

  4. Jawerya says:

    I may be interfering in all this heated argument… just wanted to bring it to your attention that this is not only happening in Pakistan, it also happens here in Botswana. Many PARENTS and some leaders of Religious communities (not the Muslim Community) and Spiritual Leaders are against the administering of the Polio Vaccine… and yes, we too think ‘but what about the kids?’… to that there is no answer….

  5. Haroon says:

    I like the approach DR has suggested.

    Yes, these people are not mullahs, tehy are enemies of Islam. You see these enemies of Islam here like on these comments trying to say that only their version of Islam is right. These enemies of Islam have always been there and they always do the same thing, they come up with some silly version and then say that only their version is right. We must not let these people take over Islam.

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