ISLAMABAD, 27 February 2007 (IRIN) - Muslim and community leaders are seeking to counter the disinformation surrounding polio vaccinations in parts of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas.
"To make people understand the importance of polio immunisation in an Islamic context is extremely important. We are engaging moderate religious leaders, community leaders and influential tribal elders. And we are holding community jirgas [councils] to address the concerns of the parents and ensure their children are vaccinated," said Melissa Corkum, a spokesperson for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
The message is "that the polio vaccine is safe and that the same vaccine has been used to eradicate polio in other Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia", Corkum said.
Her comments followed a three-day vaccination campaign supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) targeting 14.5 million children in 49 high-risk districts. Pakistan is one of only four polio-endemic countries in the world.
Since the start of 2007, four polio cases have been reported from across the country, including three from southern Sindh province, while one 10-month-old child was diagnosed with the virus in the Nowshera district of NWFP.
Polio immunisation refusals have been an issue in NWFP and tribal areas close to the Afghan border, fuelled by misconceptions about the effects of the drops - that they could lead to infertility and form part an anti-Islam agenda. During the January 2007 polio immunisation campaign, 24,000 refusals were reported in NWFP.
Maulana Fazlullah, a conservative religious leader in the Swat district of NWFP, warned his local community in one of his Friday sermons to stay away from foreign-funded polio vaccination. "I must tell my brothers and sisters that finding a cure for an epidemic before its outbreak is not allowed in Sharia [Islamic law]," Fazlullah was quoted as saying in the local media.
"According to Sharia, one should avoid going to areas where an epidemic has broken out, but those who do go to such areas and get killed during an outbreak are martyrs," he said.
In an effort to change people's attitude towards vaccination, Pakistan's Muslim Ulema (scholars) and imams from across the country in September 2006 issued a Fatwa (religious ruling) encouraging people to get their children vaccinated against the disease, which can paralyse and cause permanent disability. The ruling also urged people not to listen to any negative propaganda about polio vaccination.
"At national and international level, it has been proven that the [polio] vaccine has no negative side-effects. Neither has it had any adverse impact on the body and health," it stated.
Strategy is working
"Two imams travelled two hours to a village in Haripur district of NWFP and after talking to the people in the mosque they participated in vaccinating 75 children," said Nima Abid, head of WHO's Pakistan polio campaign.
In addition, Maulana Abdul Mateen, an imam in Balochistan's provincial capital, Quetta, has been attending evening meetings of the polio eradication campaigns in the city since the agreement was reached.
"The next day, Mateen visits the areas where refusals have been reported and talks to local imams to convince and rescind refusals," Abid explained.
Mass media has also been critical in sending out messages to educate the community. "We are running stories of people affected by polio and what difficulties they and their families are facing," Corkum said.
For effective polio vaccination coverage in 2007, health authorities have planned four nationwide immunisation campaigns.
In 2006, Pakistan reported 39 cases of polio, 15 of them in NWFP, 10 in southwestern Balochistan, 12 in Sindh and two from the eastern Punjab province. This was a 30 percent increase on 2005.