Muslim Doctors Battle New Attacks on Polio Vaccine

An Indian Muslim doctor warns against a new outbreak of religious rumours against the polio vaccine; the Muslim News reports:

Dr [Zubair] Meenai said, “This is very unfortunate that rumours are being spread that in Polio drops elements have been added that would destroy the procreative potency of the children when they grew up.

…two days ago my colleagues in Delhi sent me press clippings according to which some Ulema at Mazahirul Uloom [a religious institution] have issued a fatwa that if polio drops contained napak (unholy) elements and if it could harm the procreative potency of future generations than it is haram (forbidden)…Dr Meenai said that the new controversy might have adverse affect on the new phase of anti-Polio campaign in western UP [Uttar Pradesh] in the next few months and the risk to the health of the community would be increased.

On the other hand, Indian madrasas have been in favour of the vaccine, and the local seminary, Darul Uloom Deoband, has advised that such matters are for doctors and scientists to pronounce upon, not clerics. Polio rates as a whole are going down.

However, rumours about the vaccine are long-standing; the British Medical Journal reported in 2002 that

In pockets [of Uttar Pradesh] where polio prevails, many people believe that polio vaccine is an anti-fertility vaccine and would lead to impotence in male children or infect them with HIV/AIDS.

The same story was being told in West Bengal:

There has been an alarming increase of polio cases in West Bengal…According to Nakham Abdullah, resident, Jangipur, Murshidabad, “Polio drops leads to polio. When I was in Burdwan district, I saw several children who were inflicted with polio. Then I was told that they had polio because they were given polio drops. I have five brothers and five sisters. None of them got polio drops and they are walking fine.”

…Hasina Bibi, resident, Jangipur, Murshidabad, “The people in this village say that if you take polio drops then you don’t have children anymore.”

That was also in 2002. In 2004 another report added:

There have also been reports of assaults on health workers by irate villagers. Health workers say this trend has been noticed even in Muslim-dominated slums of the capital, Kolkata.

As in Uttar Pradesh, though, religious schools were mobilised in favour of the vaccine:

Under Unicef’s guidance, the Board of Madrassa Education organized camps for about 1,000 seminary teachers in nine districts so they could directly intervene with the families.

The West Bengal Madrassa Students Union (WBMSU) also launched a campaign after government officials reported pockets of resistance in some minority areas.

2004 also saw a massive anti-vaccine hysteria in Nigeria. I blogged on this at the time, noting the particular culpability of Kano governor Ibrahim Shekarau and Lagos State University Professor Hussain Abdulkareem. As I recalled back in February:

A harmless trace amount of the hormone estriadoil (western drinking water contains a greater amount) was said to prove that the vaccine would cause genital deformity in boys, while Abdulkareem also alleged that the vaccine would spread cancer and AIDS – claims that were then spread by local imams. Shekarau rejected a scientific committee’s finding that the vaccine was safe on the utterly bizarre grounds that the committee consisted only of Muslims, and that more Christians should have been involved.

Eventually, a supposedly safer vaccine was imported from Indonesia; who profited from this is not known, but Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo stated that

one of the Muslim leaders opposing the immunisation programme had unsuccessfully sought a government contract to import new vaccines.

The result of the hysteria was not only more polio in Nigeria; migrant workers and pilgrims spread the disease to sixteen countries. In fact, hopes that the disease would be eradicated worldwide by the end of 2004 were dashed. The full story appeared in some of my blog’s earliest entries: see here and here. The extent to which Abdulkareem and Shekarau can be blamed for the persistence of both the rumour and of the disease itself in far-away India is a subject worthy of attention.