ON the behest of the government, the Council of Islamic Ideology issued around 100 fatwas in support of polio vaccination. While some are lauding the move as a much-needed breakthrough, similar pro-polio vaccination fatwas have been declared in the past. For instance, in 2013, Maulana Samiul Haq and the Sunni Ittehad Council issued a fatwa in favour of anti-polio campaigns and condemned the targeted killings of health workers. The most recent fatwa comes a month after the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication raised concerns about the persistence of the virus in Pakistan and Afghanistan in a meeting in Cairo. Indeed, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries battling to control the polio virus, as Nigeria is well on its way to being declared polio-free. In particular, Pakistan is struggling to control a massive spike in the number of new cases this year. At the last count, the figure stood over 70, with the vast majority of cases recorded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, followed by Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab.
While the major hurdle in eradicating polio in the past was religiously motivated militancy (the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban brutally gunned down polio health workers and security personnel in their war against the state, spreading the falsehood that the vaccine was a conspiracy to sterilise Muslims), the greatest challenge in more recent times has come from misinformation campaigns that are quickly disseminated through social media and create panic and paranoia among the people. While the challenges to anti-polio efforts by militancy are not over yet, the issue of vaccine refusal is arguably now more about a lack of awareness regarding health and how vaccines work. The battle against polio must be tackled on a war footing, and community leaders and local mosques must be engaged in such efforts. It is not an easy task, but one must remember that countries with even larger populations and conflict zones have been able to successfully eradicate the disease.
Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2019