'Polio vaccine critical for your child's health': Religious leaders dispel rumours, endorse inoculation
On August 25, the World Health Organisation (WHO) made a much-awaited announcement to the world — Africa was free from the polio virus.
While the news didn’t receive quite as much traction as it should have, given the world’s attention seems to be transfixed upon the novel coronavirus, the fact that the world’s poorest countries, aided by a global effort, were able to rid themselves of the polio virus was no mean feat.
There now remain only two countries where the crippling virus is known to remain — Afghanistan and Pakistan.
While there may be a host of factors why the two neighbouring countries have not been able to rid their respective populaces of the virus, it goes without saying that sentiment against the vaccine where it is seen to be anti-religion or anti-Muslim has become a major impediment over the last decade.
As of September 21, there have been 73 cases of the wild polio virus in Pakistan in the current year, a significant jump from the lowest in 2017, when only eight new cases of WPV were reported in the entire year.
‘A dangerous affair’
Over the years, the polio vaccine has become one of the most polarised issues in the country. The government, for all the inoculation campaigns, realised some years ago that simply sending health workers door to door wouldn’t solve the problem.
There was something more sinister at play here and it had to be tackled through changing public perception. The danger, if the right information wasn’t given to the public could quickly boil over and cause serious damage to the cause of ridding Pakistan of polio — with hazards ranging from conspiracy theories being shared on Whatsapp groups to attacks against polio workers and the security staff accompanying them.
Thus in 2015, the government moved to dispel one of the biggest rumours surrounding the vaccine — that it was not halal. A laboratory under the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan tested the vaccine and certified it as halal. The move also aimed to put to rest the rumours that certain hormones were being added to the vaccine to make children sterile.
But the rumours have persisted and almost five years later in 2020, the Pakistan Ulema Council conducted a press conference to speak about the issue.
Addressing a press conference along with clerics and religious leaders in Islamabad, PUC chairman Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi decried those who were opposing the anti-polio campaign and termed it a conspiracy against the country.
“Pakistan Ulema Council, Darul Afta Pakistan, Wafaq-ul-Masajid, Madaris-i-Pakistan and leading ulema and mashaikh have already termed polio drops not only halal but also beneficial for people and decrees have been issued that there is nothing harmful or haram in polio drops,” he declared.
Speaking to Dawn.com, Karachi-based cleric, Maulana Umar Sadiq, says that there is no ambiguity regarding the contents of the vaccine being halal. “Pakistan’s medical boards have all cleared it,” he says, referring to the 2015 laboratory tests. Maulana Sadiq is also the chairperson of the scholars’ taskforce on polio in Sindh.
“Ulema of all sects have cleared it as being halal ... many fatwas have been issued that children should be given the vaccine to protect them and others from the virus,” he continues.
Another Karachi-based cleric, Maulana Dr Naseerudin Swati, laughs at the rumour that the vaccine could cause infertility. “I don’t know where such a preposterous notion has spread from,” he tells Dawn.com. “When people tell me such things, I tell them I know of so many people who were administered the vaccine and are now fathers to three to four children,” he says, laughing.
Asked about the theory that the vaccine was a conspiracy against Muslims, Maulana Sadiq brushed it off, saying, “Everything against the vaccine is simply propaganda … I have been working for many years to educate people about the need to get vaccinated against this disease.”
“People spread all kinds of rumours,” says Allama Syed Raza Jafar Naqvi, in a recently-released video message. “I would request all of you not to pay heed to these rumours. The truth is that polio is a dangerous disease that can cripple your child for life … get your children vaccinated against it,” he advises.
In fact, in October last year, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) validated around a hundred fatwas, also known as religious edicts, in support of polio vaccination, sparking hopes that religion-based resistance against vaccinations would decrease.
While giving the nod to the edicts, the CII also expressed concern that Pakistan was facing travel restrictions due to polio cases, and could face further financial problems in the future as such restrictions could be increased if the spread of the virus isn't controlled.
A year later, Maulana Sadiq shares the same concern. “This is a communicable disease,” he explains. If we don’t stop this now, the international community may impose travel restrictions on us and we will not be able to go for Umrah, or Haj …” he warns, his voice trailing off.
According to Maulana Swati, the ulema of all major sects have come together in support of the vaccine. He expresses the hope that people would stop paying heed to rumours and get their children vaccinated for their own well-being as well as in the larger interest of society. “Let the doctors do their jobs. When they say you need the vaccine, there is no room for ambiguity. Neither you nor your Whatsapp groups know more about diseases and vaccines than the doctors.”