An Imam promotes the power of vaccines in war torn Yemen

Medical doctors and religious teachers play a crucial role in building trust and convincing families to vaccinate their children against polio

UNICEF Yemen
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22 June 2022

It has been a long day for Dr Nabeel Abdu Omar Ali, but today he is working up until the sun goes down. The weather is pleasant, he says, “In a month’s time, heat and humidity will be unbearable here in Aden.” Since morning, Dr Nabeel is going from one house to the next and speaking to parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children against polio in Enma community, a middle-class neighborhood in Aden. A polio team has informed Dr Nabeel about a few refusals in the neighborhood, and Dr Nabeel, nicknamed as “mobile imam” by his peers, has an idea. He is going to vaccinate his grandchildren in front of the community, so people don’t have doubts about the safety of the vaccine.

“When I vaccinate my grandchildren in front of community members, it helps to create trust in the safety of the vaccine. Parents start to think if a doctor is vaccinating his own children, the vaccine must be safe,” says Dr Nabeel while finger marking a child after giving her polio drops. 

Dr Nabeel is a pediatrician by profession and a certified imam from the Ministry of Endowment in Southern Yemen. Dr Nabeel uses his religious knowledge and scientific facts to educate the public on the importance of immunization. He also trains Imams on the benefits of vaccination, who in return go into communities and talk about the benefits of vaccination during Friday sermons.

“Sometimes, Imams are not only ill-informed about the vaccines, but they are also stubborn to acquire new knowledge. That is why I use my knowledge of Islam and scientific reasoning to change their behaviors,”

Dr. Nabeel Abdu Omar Ali 

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Dr Nabeel uses his religious knowledge and scientific facts to educate the public on the importance of vaccines.
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Dr Nabeel going with vaccination teams from one house to the next to speak to parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children against polio.

“Imams in our communities are quite influential. I know how seriously people take the message from an Imam during Friday prayers. A sermon by an imam is all it takes to change misconceptions about vaccines in some communities. If Imams are fully equipped with knowledge on vaccines, it helps to change the behavior of communities and create vaccine acceptance. Imams have the influence to raise awareness, shape social values, and influence attitudes, behaviours and practices.” he adds.

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has damaged the health infrastructure, and interruption in power supply often creates suspicion among community members as well as Imams regarding the safety of the vaccine and if the cold chain is fully maintained at each stage.

“I was training a group of imams and they had doubts about the safety of the vaccine. They questioned if the cold chain was maintained given that we have power cuts. I organized a tour to a cold chain facility for the group to see that solar energy is used to provide power supply for the cold chain facility,” narrates Dr Nabeel.

Dr Nabeel has been working for immunization programme in Yemen for 12 years. He has been partnering with UNICEF for various preventive campaigns as well for routine immunization. As a pediatrician, he saw children dying and getting paralyzed by polio, and that is when he decided to dedicate his time to educate caregivers and parents on health benefits of vaccination.

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Dr Nabeel posing with his grandchildren for a picture after a long day at work.

“Throughout my career, I have been confronted with people who were very resistant to the idea of vaccination. There are many misconceptions about vaccines. Some people think that the vaccine will make them infertile, or it is some kind of a conspiracy. However, my years of work in immunization have helped me to build trust with communities. They mostly listen to me,”

Dr. Nabeel Abdu Omar Ali 

Dr Nabeel is also media savvy. He is often heard on radio and TV programmes talking about the importance of vaccine in protecting children from preventable diseases. He takes part in live TV and radio shows where he answers questions from the public.

“I use a mixed approach to address vaccine hesitancy and dispel misinformation on vaccines. Sometimes it is helpful to talk about vaccines during Friday sermon and sometimes it is more effective to explain to a caller on a radio programme why vaccines are important.”

Dr Nabeel studied medicine in China. He took the saying, “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China,” quite literally. In response, he smiles and moves to the next house to speak to the parents to vaccinate their children.