x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Clerics recruited into Pakistan’s polio vaccination effort

Government hopes to counter propaganda against polio immunisation effort.

Karachi // Pakistan has recruited influential clerics to overcome the remaining pockets of suspicion among conservative segments of the population who have so far resisted immunisation.

The strategy is part of renewed efforts to push back against anti-vaccination propaganda and Taliban violence targeting polio workers in the predominantly Pashtun tribal areas and pockets of Karachi.

The anti-polio message has been propagated by an influential newspaper and local clerics and is tied to nger at American and Pakistani policies in the wars against Islamist militants in Afghanistan and north-west Pakistan.

Sami Ul Haq, the leader of an Islamist political party who also runs a madrassa in the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that once taught Afghan Taliban militants, is perhaps the most prominent figure to support the campaign.

Mr Ul Haq was recently appointed by the federal government as a lead negotiator in potential peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, and he has issued a fatwa in favour of vaccination that features prominently in a booklet that polio teams distribute in areas with high refusal rates.

The clerics are drawn from the Deobandi sect to which many Pashtuns adhere.

“The fatwa booklets do work to convince some people, but others say they are fake, or that their local maulvis said they are fake, or they just don’t care what’s in them,” said Kamran Khan, a vaccination worker who tries to convince people to accept immunisation.

Seated on cushions behind his desk at the Jamia Binoria religious complex in an industrial area of Karachi, Mufti Mohamed Naeem is one of the most influential Deobandi clerics in Karachi. He too has written a fatwa in support of the vaccinations.

“Even we were suspicious and people had put doubts in our minds after polio became a bad word,” he said. “But to determine the truth we had the vaccine tested at a laboratory and the scientists found that there was nothing in it that would cause infertility or Aids or any of these other myths.”

But Mr Naeem said the fatwas could only go so far in convincing those most opposed to the vaccinations, and that more pragmatic steps should be taken.

Local mullahs and even militants should be given money in exchange for allowing the vaccinations, Mr Naeem said, or infrastructure and schools should be offered along with the vaccines.

But the difficulty of the task is apparent in places like Hijrat Colony, a Karachi neighbourhood where vaccination workers have been threatened and there is a stubborn refusal rate.

Qari Usman is the leader of a small cinder-block mosque in Hijrat and is respected by its residents. “I believe that Sami Ul Haq and others have given fatwas, but none of them have provided answers to this,” he said, holding up a copy of the Daily Ummat, a pro-Islamist, Urdu newspaper popular with conservative Pashtuns across Pakistan.

The article was about a “discovery” that the polio vaccine was made out of monkey’s blood and therefore forbidden by Islam.

tkhan@thenational.ae