The beautiful, arched building of Baldia Town’s largest seminary, the Jamia Suffah, is serene and stolid; its white and rose-coloured hues form animated shadows against the bright sky. Inside, past the marble-tiled courtyard, sits religious scholar Mufti Mohammad Zubair, in an office lined with books.
Today, once again, the mufti asked his subordinates to do everything it takes to ensure that every child gets polio drops.
“I appeal to every parent to get their child vaccinated,” says the scholar, touching his smartphone every once in a while. “I am not satisfied with the contents of the polio vaccine, but that doesn’t mean that we leave our children to be crippled.”
The polio debate rages on in Baldia Town, the sprawling Karachi neighbourhood where militants have attacked and killed female polio workers and chased down immunisation teams.
However, in a move that directly confronts the fear deeply embedded among residents, religious scholars and government health practitioners have now joined hands to fight the crippling disease.
The importance of ideas
Hardliners, like Zubair, did not change their stance overnight. The idea to engage clerics and polio teams came from Dr Tasleem Amir, the district health communication support officer (DHCSO) of the polio programme in the area.
“Baldia has been a challenge because of its law and order situation, and because of its defiant residents,” says Dr Tasleem, with a steely resolve in her voice. “[Initially, even] I had thought that I would not be able to work here, but I was wrong.”
Last January, when she took over the polio campaign in the dangerous area that hosts 137,000 children under five, she became a silent observer, and slowly figured out how to deal with the situation. In 2011, two polio cases were diagnosed.
The doctor soon arranged a meeting of Pakhtun women, and started appealing to their emotions.
“I am a mother of four. Would I want something bad to happen to your child?” she would ask.
Tasleem also brought in polio victim Abrar Khan, 25, as a social mobiliser.
The bespectacled Khan, a resident of Baldia who is related to religious clerics, leans on his wooden crutches to go from door to door, not just telling people about polio, but also showing them. “They ask me what polio is, and I say: Just look at me. This is what this disease does!” he exclaims.
It did not take Tasleem long to realise the influence of the religious scholars in the area, and she started approaching them with confidence.
“I would not force them to administer drops to their children,” she explains. “Instead, I focused on their concerns and tried to remove them.”
It was not easy though. Mufti Zubair, who seemingly has around 90% of the clerics under his influence, admits that there were serious reservations. Clerics believed polio workers were pro-America, and anti-Islam. They also thought the drops would make the child infertile.
To quell some of those concerns, Dr Tasleem organised a seminar at the seminary last December. At the end of the gathering, the scholars passed a resolution, urging people to save their children from being crippled by giving them polio drops.
While an overhaul of perceptions will take time, change can already be seen. During the recent polio campaigns, Zubair’s own children felt the red drops trickle down their throats for the first time.
Now, Zubair and the other clerics in the area make it a point to speak about the importance of the polio vaccine.
Dr Tasleem continues to spend her days in the area, where although militants still remain intolerant, no new polio cases have emerged, and no environmental samples have come out positive. Initially, thousands of families refused the drops. Today, this number stands at 670.
“I am happy that I was able to convince people and save children,” she says smiling. “My aim is to make the place polio-free.”
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2013.