'Won't take Modi-RSS vaccine': Myths, quacks derail Malappuram vaccination drive putting lakhs of children at risk
In the Malappuram district of Kerala, health workers are threatened, abused and even physically assaulted for attempting to give a vaccine to children.
"This is Modi-RSS vaccine. You are doing this to control our population. Please go away. I will not allow my children to be vaccinated," 35-year-old Abdul Razzak (name changed) of Kondotty is seen shouting at a nurse from the local primary health centre.
The nurse has no way but to leave the local school campus along with her co-workers, unable to conduct the statewide Measles Rubella (MR) vaccination drive for children between the age of nine months and 15 years as part of the National Immunisation Programme.
This has been the typical scene across schools and private households in the Malappuram district of Kerala, where health workers are threatened, abused and even physically assaulted for attempting to vaccinate children against two deadly diseases that could hit anytime.
As a rudely shaken state government struggles to counter the widespread and well-coordinated myth and rumour mongering which has forced the parents to stubbornly turn away from allowing the kids to be vaccinated, at the receiving end is a staggering total of 12.6 lakh school children in the district.
The anti-vaccine campaigners tag the myths they propagate to a potentially inflammable religious sentiment of regulating the Muslim population, which drives the 70 percent Muslim population living in the district away from the immunisation programme.
While the rest of the state had reached a near 95 percentage of immunisation, with almost all districts crossing 90 till last week, Malappuram languishes at a dismal 62 percent and that too after the state's health workers, doctors, nurses and volunteers have put in tremendous efforts to usher in change.
Shimna Azeez is a doctor at the Manjeri Medical College in Malappuram. She is also the medical officer in charge of immunisation. Her task this year has been no easy one.
She even vaccinated both her young children live on Facebook with the hope that it would inspire others to do the same. But on the ground, the situation has been painfully slow. On her visit to a school in Kondotty for an awareness campaign, she was openly challenged by parents to inject the vaccine herself to prove that it was safe.
"Just because I took the vaccine and showed that it is safe, close to 310 children took the shots and the next day another 150 more did. The bottom line is that there is a lack of trust towards any such vaccine which is completely misused by a few others with vested interests. It is their campaign that has now made the situation tough for us," Azeez told Firstpost.
Last week, a nurse who was visiting a school in Edayoor in the district for vaccination was brutally attacked by a group of locals, including parents of children. The nurse Shyamala was left with a broken hand. The vaccination drive in Malappuram was suddenly taking a very dangerous turn, risking lives of unsuspecting health activists.
So, what and why does Malappuram shy away from vaccination in an otherwise highly literate and medically aware state like Kerala? Where does this anti-vaccine emotion come from?
The modus operandi of the anti-vaccine drive
At a discreet make-shift centre somewhere in the district, a man named Mohanan Vaidyar is speaking on the ill-effects of the MR vaccine and his talk is streamed live on Facebook to the rest of the word.
The man who looks in his late fifties neither has any form of qualified degree nor is he a registered medical practitioner but at least 100 people, mostly parents have gathered to listen to him.
He manages to create a smoke screen around his talk, which he then manipulates according to his wish.
"MR vaccine is an international attempt led by Bill Gates' Company to drive the World De-population agenda 2025. If your girls are given this vaccine, its heat will destroy their uterus and render them infertile," shouts Mohanan Vaidyar to the people gathered to listen to him.
He has no corroborative facts to support his argument but the talk, which was live on Facebook, serves its purpose. It creates a terrible doubt in the minds of the people listening as most of them could be heard in the video committing to Vaidyar vocally that they would not vaccinate their children anymore.
This is the new face of the anti-vaccine campaign. It touches the most delicate and sensitive chord with the people – the safety of their children – and it emotionally bonds these parents with the anti-vaccine campaigners, leaving the government and the health workers little room to manoeuvre or turn the tables.
Though the state government started the vaccination on the first of October, the anti-vaccination campaign machinery led by touts like Mohanan Vaidyar and Jacob Vadakancherry, another prominent name in the field, had started its operation well in advance.
Months before the first teams set foot on Malappuram, the myths let out by these people in the form of Whatsapp and Facebook messages and videos had taken deep roots in the minds of the people.
"This is the biggest challenge that we are facing at the moment. More than giving them awareness about the need to vaccinate the children, we are left with the burden of making the average parent unlearn some of the terribly illogical myths about the vaccine which is so time-consuming and leaves us with little time for actual vaccination. Though we knew that there was such a campaign, we never thought it would become so effective," added Azeez.
Health activists say that the crux of the message is simple but capable of spreading widespread and immediate fear among a predominantly rural population that already looks at modern medicine with suspicion.
Majority of the Whatsapp messages, the favourite tool, even ahead of Facebook, in spreading the rumour say that this vaccination is "an American driven initiative supported by the government of India at controlling the Muslim population". It is here that the Narendra Modi-RSS vaccine name also takes shape.
It is the fertility of Muslim boys and girls that is under threat as per the message, something with which the population will never want to take a chance and those spreading it are well aware of that emotion.
Parents, especially women who sit at home with a majority of their husbands working in the Gulf region, across Malappuram unintentionally fall easy prey to such myths and most of them end up sending the message across their family and friends' groups.
The source of the myth
Alternate medicine, especially homoeopathy and naturopathy have been at loggerheads with the vaccination drive in the state for years now. Many health activists say that this fight in Malappuram is perhaps the last pitched battle by this alternate medical industry and its practitioners against the general medicine in the state.
"See, we need to understand this very clearly. The intention of the anti-vaccine campaigners is to ensure that at least a section of the society is attracted towards the alternate ways of medicine that they are trying to propagate and for this, they need to somehow discredit the mainstream medical practice. So, the best way is perhaps to target vaccination," said Dr N Sulphi, state secretary, Indian Medical Association (IMA).
"But what has now attained dangerous colours is the use of religion as a tool. That is why Malappuram is being targeted because it is so easy to inflame the average Muslim's feelings against a vaccine by projecting it as an American tool for birth control," he added.
It is here that the state government should have stepped in to ensure that those propagating the myths are brought to book. But sadly nothing has happened in spite of the Kerala State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (KSCPCR) even suggesting the state to tighten the legal noose around those standing against vaccination.
"The stand of the Commission is very clear. When any vaccine becomes a part of the National Immunisation Programme, it undoubtedly is the right of the child to have it. The Commission cannot tolerate the right of a child taken for a ride by such elements, including the parents. But is up to the government to act on these recommendations," chairperson, KSCPCR told Firstpost.
Even some of the parents whom Firstpost talked to are blaming the state government for the situation. "See we are caught in between those who keep telling us day and night that the vaccine is harmful to our children and the health activists who are trying to convince us otherwise. Whom do we believe and why should we take a chance with the life of our child?" asks Sajid Ahmad (name changed) from Tirur.
Ahmad who has two children aged three and eight refused to vaccinate them when the health workers arrived at his doorstep last month. Others believe that vaccines do have far-reaching side effects.
"Whatever they say, I have seen children getting a fever and falling terribly sick after vaccination. This is a big mafia and selling vaccine is a big international business led by American companies. If not, the government should come forward and give us assurances," Salim Mohammed (name changed) from Tanur told Firstpost.
That the present MR vaccine is being manufactured at the Serum Institute of India in Pune is something which the people in Malappuram just refuse to believe because the campaign across the fence is stronger, which brings the American angle to the whole issue.
Even efforts by prominent Muslim leaders have borne little fruit in the matter. From the Indian Union Muslim League to the Jamaat Ulama and Jamaat Islami and even the Nadwathul Mujahideen, all have tried their hand at telling people about the need for the vaccines.
"There was a picture earlier that the community leaders were against vaccination. But that changed years ago when prominent religious leaders from almost all denominations took an active part in the programme. Many of them even sent Whatsapp and Facebook messages. So, it's no more a religious issue now. What is needed is strict action from the government to ensure that the touts are behind bars," said Dr AK Rouf, general secretary of Kerala Government Medical Officers Association (KGMOA).
The final push
The already exhausted health machinery in Malappuram district had been gearing up for a final push to increase the vaccination numbers in the district before the cut-off date which when this report was being filed seems to have been extended till the first week of December to ensure that district reaches somewhere close to where others are.
While most others have crossed 90, with Alapuzha even reaching 99 percent immunisation, Malappuram would in all possibility remain a major headache this year as well.
That the district has a total number of 12.6 lakh children, which is twice and in a few cases thrice the numbers compared to other districts, has also not helped the cause either. Unless the state adopts robust methods to drive the vaccination campaign, Malappuram will continue to stick out like a sore thumb in the National Immunisation Programme.
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