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Religious Leaders Pitch in to Defeat Polio

© UNICEF India/2011/Niklas Halle'n
UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia, Daniel Toole, discussing the role of religious leaders in addressing resistance to polio vaccination at a madrassa in Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh

By Atul Kumar

MORADABAD, India 2 August 2011 –
At the start of the millennium, Pakbara, a quaint settlement on the edge of Moradabad city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, was a ‘High Risk Area’ for polio.  In 2004, about 19 per cent of the families in Pakbara strongly resisted vaccinating their children against polio. Every year several cases of polio continued to get reported from this area.

Thanks to the efforts of religious leaders along with local administration and UNICEF, the entire state of Uttar Pradesh, including Pakbara has not reported a single polio case since 2010.
“Earlier some families believed that the polio vaccine drops could have harmful effects on the health of their children,” says Shamm-e-Alam, a religious leader of Pakbara. 

“As soon as vaccinators arrived at their doorstep, families would hide their children in drums and some women would even run away with their children,” he adds.

The religious leader is part of a gathering meeting Daniel Toole, UNICEF’s Regional Director for South Asia and Karin Hulshof, UNICEF representative to India, at the Abdul Gafur Naimi madrassa. This madrassa or religious school is one of the oldest in Pakbara.

Apart from religious leaders of various Muslim sects, the principal of the madrassa, doctors, teachers and other influencers make up the gathering. Seventy per cent of Pakbara’s population are Muslims and are influenced by their religious leaders.
Sayed Masoom Ali Azad, the Sheher Imam, or the religious head of Moradabad contends that the fight against polio got a boost after the religious leaders joined in.

“Families that were opposing the vaccination drive were a smaller issue. Leaders who were opposing were a bigger issue,” says Sayed Masoom.

To convince people that vaccination against polio was important for community health, the religious leaders joined hands with the polio eradication campaign initiated by local administration, supported by UNICEF. The leaders started accompanying the vaccinators during their house visits – particularly to the houses of families who were resisting vaccinating their children.

The leaders organized polio rallies and talked about the importance of vaccinating the children during Khutbas or religious sermons.

“The message communicated was that the holy Quran highlights the importance of being healthy,” says Shamm-e-Alam, the Shaher Imam of Pakbara.

Qari Israr Ali, the principal of the madrassa adds that Muslims coming from India for the annual holy pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Saudi Arabia were segregated and asked to inoculate their children.

“It was very humiliating. When we were excluded like that, merely because we were from India. We realized that if we are being asked to inoculate the children in Jeddah, we should be asking all our brethren in India to do the same,” says the principal of the madrassa.

“We urged the families to accept the vaccines, as these were safe and important for their children. This added the much needed impetus to the campaign,” adds Shamm-e-Alam.

Today, only a handful of families in Pakbara are still unconvinced to administer polio vaccines to their children. But the important thing is that the religious leaders know these families and are engaged in persuading them.

“This is a story of empowerment. There have been many lessons in this story to keep Polio out of UP,” says Ms Hulshof in her discussion with the leaders. She praised the efforts of the religious leaders and urged them to carry on the work in areas such as Routine Immunization.

Uttar Pradesh has not reported any P1 polio case (p1 type) since Nov 2009 and no P3 type case since April 2010. While a lot of credit goes to the thousands of ground workers, their task has been supported very well by the leaders of the Muslim communities.

“The world is watching you. India has immense potential. You have done remarkable things in this country in very challenging scenarios. Many countries would like to learn from your experiences to eradicate polio from their countries,” adds Daniel Toole.



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