Government officials believe the main factor contributing to the rise in polio is misapprehension and lack of awareness due to religious mindsets.
“One is surprised to find that among all the factors behind the setback in the polio immunisation campaign, the religious mindset is topping the list,” Shahnaz Wazir Ali, the prime minister’s special assistant, told The Express Tribune.
“The Taliban are also a major factor in hampering the polio eradication programme, which is, once again, believed by the majority to be a religious dynamic.”
“Fatwas issued by the Taliban disparaging the vaccination as an American ploy to make Muslims infertile, and a recent ban linking the campaign to a halt in drone strikes, greatly damaged the polio drive and it was very unfortunate that no prominent religious figure came up to assist us.”
Wazir said there is a strategy already in place to brief religious leaders about the importance of vaccination. She added, however, that the religious leaders would have to play their role effectively to wash out wrong perceptions regarding polio vaccination.
She further said that many orthodox families in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are reluctant to vaccinate their children because they believe the vaccine is of no use. Of the children suffering from polio in Pakistan, 77% are Pakhtun, she said.
However, Wazir’s interpretation has been strongly denied by the high-ranking ‘Maulanas’ of Pakistan who say there is no restriction on the treatment of ill health in Islam.
Maulana Samiul Haq of Madrassa Haqqania, Akora Khattak, a hardcore religious scholar known for his close links with the Taliban, said that polio vaccination has no side effects according to research carried out by religious doctors and physicians.
He added that concerns about the vaccination were dropped by the Ulema of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, who declared the vaccine safe for use. Qazi Hussain Ahmed of the Jamaat-e-Islami said that government officials and the international community are entirely wrong in thinking that religious mindset hinders the polio campaign, and called it a negative propaganda against Islam.
Qazi said the main factor behind the disapproval of polio drops is a lack of awareness about the significance of the vaccines.
Likewise, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl’s Senator Haji Ghulam Ali also refused to accept Wazir’s views, saying, “The lady should know that we urged the Ulema of far-flung and isolated areas to deliver a special oration after Friday prayers about polio immunisation and made an effective appeal.”
He added that it has become easy for Western powers to blame Islam for the rise of polio and they should think about other causes as well; mainly, he added, a backlash to drone strikes, which have killed and injured thousands of tribesmen.
A government official suggested that Pakistan should request the Saudi government to ask the Imam-e-Ka’aba to issue an appeal for a “polio-free Muslim Ummah,” in line with resolutions of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation that called upon Afghanistan and Pakistan, the last Muslim nations harboring polio, to redouble their efforts in eradicating the disease.
The official added that the Imam-e-Ka’aba may also include the message in his Hajj sermon. Previously, the Imam has delivered a message on HIV-AIDS as part of his Hajj sermon.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 5th, 2012.