A staunch anti-polio mufti whose own niece has fallen prey to lifelong paralysis because of his remorseless and adamant opposition to polio immunisation, has transformed into a polio advocate. The mufti is also said to have launched a polio immunisation campaign in his area in Quetta. On the face of it, there is every reason to celebrate the development as a major breakthrough. However, if one were to delve deeper, the incident raises questions that expose the reactive mode in which the country’s polio officials are pursuing the eradication of the disease at the present critical juncture.
Why did 23 month-old Mehrama-the most recent polio victim from Quetta-have to be paralysed for life before her paternal uncle, Mufti Abdul Qayyum, could be convinced about the efficacy of polio vaccine? If it was that easy to convince the mufti, why did the machinery of the polio eradication programme spring into action only after the appearance of his interview in ‘The News,’ wherein he had termed the polio vaccine ‘haram,’ and had indicated that he would rather have his own child crippled by polio than take her forward for administration of a ‘haram’ vaccine.
It took no more than a week for the health teams of social mobilisers and local government officials to convert a chronic refusal case into a pro-polio activist. They met the mufti, informed him that Saudi Arabia had eradicated polio using the same vaccine, and that the entire Muslim Ummah was almost free of polio due to similar campaigns. The mufti was also shown a video message by Maulana Rafi Usmani, an influential religious scholar from his sect, and ‘fatwas’ from other religious scholars. That is all it took to shake the mufti, who not only agreed to vaccinate children in his own family, but also became a polio campaigner himself. Mufti Abdul Qayyum administered anti-polio drops to children residing on Sabzal Road, one of the most densely-populated slum areas of the city. He also vaccinated his own one year-old son.
This clearly proves that the mufti was an easy case to convince, and that it only required a full-hearted targeted effort to alter his perception. Why then, did Mehrama have to pay the price of the lackadaisical attitude of the polio officials? Why were no efforts made during the 23 months before the child finally got crippled by poliovirus? Mutfi Abdul Qayyum’s family had persistently been refusing polio vaccination during the house-to-house campaigns. He had strictly prohibited the polio teams from administering polio vaccine to his children. This had happened not once, but on so many occasions that the polio teams would now merely pass by his house, without a concerted effort ever being made to soften his obstinate stance. The mufti, who was absolutely at peace with the fact that a child in his family had been crippled for life, was administering polio drops to other children only after his own niece had been crippled for life. What greater tragedy could have befallen Mehrama?
Commenting on the development, an official of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation expressed concern about the fate of all children whose families continue to refuse polio vaccination to their children. “Hundreds of children may get crippled if polio officials institute corrective action only after a child has been crippled.” He shared that an estimated over 30,000 families across Pakistan (19,000 in Khyber Pakhtunkwa) refused polio vaccination during the May 2012 polio campaign alone. “Does this mean that we will wait for these many children to get paralysed before an effective communications and awareness strategy is devised to turn the tide against chronic refusals,” he asked.
The Prime Minister’s Polio Eradication and Monitoring Cell obviously sees the mufti’s transformation as a major breakthrough. “Mufti Abdul Qayyum inaugurated the polio campaign in his area in Quetta. This has come as a sigh of relief as the local religious leader had been opposing vaccination, which resulted in his own niece contracting polio paralysing her for life,” stated an official.
When contacted, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Shahnaz Wazir Ali said, “The polio campaign is about saving our children from being paralysed for life. All Muslim countries except Afghanistan and Pakistan are now polio-free. It is our religious duty and obligation to protect our children against disease and disability.” Shahnaz said, the campaign is being supported by ulema, mashaikh and religious scholars the world over. “In Pakistan, during the last few months, over 730 ulema have pledged their support to the cause during countrywide interactions. District kkhateebsk all over the country are also an integral part of the effort and have now been designated as members of the District Polio Eradication Committees,” she informed.
The mobilisation of 730 ulema may have been a gigantic task but as far as polio eradication is concerned, the time for generic action is over. This is not the first time that ulema are pledging their support. There have been bigger congregations of religious scholars in the past, with no tangible outcomes forthcoming. The polio programme needs to narrow down its effort by targeting specific children, specific families, and specific ulema. One wonders how many disabled Mehramas it will take before Pakistan finally embarks on implementation of a polio eradication roadmap that is based on ground realities.