Diphtheria cases in Kerala's Malappuram highlights need to battle unscientific rejection of vaccines

The 13-year-old boy is lying unconscious on a hospital bed in Kondotty and his father has left everything to God now. Down with diphtheria doctors say he’s yet to come out of danger. But his father, a cleric in a local mosque, is yet to believe that two harmless shots of an injection could have saved his son.

After a brief lull, the deadly disease has resurfaced in Malappuram district of Kerala. Out of 16 suspected cases reported last week, four are confirmed cases of diphtheria giving enough worries to health officials. Last year, the bacteria-induced disease that was once eradicated from the state had claimed six lives in the district. Health officials working on the immunisation front cite the stiff resistance they still face from many parents and religious outfits as the reason behind the disease's resurgence.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

True, many parents easily fall prey to the misinformation campaign let loose by fundamentalist forces, who claim most vaccines were creation of the West and believers never needed them. They also spread a canard that vaccines affect the fertility of children when they grow up and most of them carry a pork-based gelatine making it haraam (forbidden) for believers.

“We were told by our mahal (mosque) committee that most vaccines are harmful and affect fertility of children when they grow up,” said Khader Meeran, a farm labourer, who lost his youngest child last year. He’s yet to convince himself that a timely vaccination could have saved his son’s life.

There has been a steady rise in mistrust for vaccinations in the Muslim-majority (of the total population 65 percent are Muslims) district triggering a fear that some of the eradicated diseases like polio may re-appear in the district. In some interior places people often put up boards saying they don’t entertain vaccine inquirers anymore. Health officials do admit they dread to enter certain areas.

Upset with such developments, the Indian Medical Association had sought police protection for health personnel who carry out immunization drive in the district and the state's Health Minister K Shailaja even threatened police action against those who disrupt work immunization officials. The government had also roped in south Indian actor Mohanlal to do a vaccine promo. But the latest outbreak shows that these efforts failed to yield the desired results.

“We are facing a Herculean task. Despite a vigorous campaign, a section of people still feel that vaccinations are not needed,” Malappuram DMO Dr Mohamed Ismail told Firstpost. State health ministry statistics show that 30 percent children between 0 and five years and 20 percent between seven and 16 years were never vaccinated. The dismal level of vaccination in Malappuram are further highlighted by the fact that in other nearby districts, immunization rate is well above 90 percent among children falling under both age brackets.

Many reformist organisations have condemned the orthodox groups saying their ‘Taliban model’ campaign would only help push the community towards a disaster. They also blame two powerful organizations — Jammat-e-Islami and a Sunni sect led by Kanthapuram Abubaker Musaliyar — for misleading Muslims from the economically weaker section of the society.

But a spokesman of the Jammat-e-Islami denied any role in it saying that it was the prerogative of the parents whether to administer vaccine or not. Last year the district collector had called a meeting of all parties and religious bodies but some fringe outfits stayed away from it. It is a fact that often poor people fall prey to designs of such forces and they suffer the most once disease afflict them.

“Fearing police action there is no open campaign now... Many mahal committees often convince believers that vaccines are anti-Islam and they are a ploy to restrict Muslim population in the country,” said a health official adding that these forces are working overtime to discourage people from participating in immunization drives.

The view that vaccines as a form of preventive medicine is not complaint with Sharia, is rarely expressed openly but spoken in whispers. Earlier there was a plan to announce the importance of vaccine through the mosque public address system but it was dropped after many religious bodies resisted it. Besides this, many quacks and alternate medicine practitioners also fan trouble.

According to the central government’s universal immunization schedule ten diseases are covered under free immunization programme in the country — polio, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, tetanus, mumps, rubella tuberculosis and hepatitis A and B. These vaccines have to be administered within 5 years of age.

If a wholly preventable disease can’t be contained effectively, the state’s robust health record (lowest infant mortality and highest life expectancy rates in country) will go for a toss. Anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccines. But all their arguments have been proven wrong by the scientific community. It is time for religious leaders to take the mantle and exposes forces who push the little ones to death and destruction.

It is a fact that if a large number of people are unvaccinated there is a high chance that another epidemic may break out. The district also needs proper health education at grassroots to dispel unnecessary concerns otherwise it will remain a blot on the state that boasts of many firsts in human development indices.

Updated Date: May 14, 2017 10:47 AM

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