PESHAWAR -- Islamic scholars are urging parents in Pakistan and Afghanistan to defy the Taliban and to immunise their children against polio.
The countries have the unwanted distinction of being the last two where polio remains endemic.
The Jeddah, Saudi Arabia-based Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication (IAG) last month came up with a new plan to eradicate the virus from the two Muslim countries.
"In the past few years, polio eradication has been hindered in some Muslim countries by misperceptions and lack of safe access to the children for vaccination," the IAG said in a statement July 27 at the conclusion of its third annual meeting in Jeddah.
Representatives from the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA), Al Azhar University in Cairo, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB), and the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, as well as other religious scholars, technical specialists and academics, participated in the meeting.
Islamic scholars counter Taliban propaganda
The IAG condemned the Taliban for opposing polio vaccination and asked religious leaders to counter the militants' propaganda.
The Taliban have falsely called vaccines a Western plot.
The IAG reiterated its trust in the safety and effectiveness of the oral polio vaccine and said "it fully conforms to Islamic rulings".
It also "affirmed the religious obligation of parents to vaccinate their children to keep them healthy".
The IAG confirmed the key role Islamic scholars can play in enhancing the public's understanding of health matters and in the final push to end polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Progress in eradicating polio
Dr. Ala Alwan, regional director of the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (based in Cairo), commended the role of the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan in fighting polio.
"The impact of your work was evidenced through the positive contribution of the National Islamic Advisory Group (NIAG) in Pakistan at the national and provincial levels and down to union council [township] and community level through its engagement with the local religious scholars in giving support and protection to the frontline health workers," he said in his speech to the IAG.
The IsDB provided US $100m [Rs. 10.5 billion] "to support the efforts of the Pakistani government and the partners in order to eradicate polio by the end of 2018", bank President Ahmad Mohamed Ali said.
Unlike the case with many other diseases, the complete eradication of polio is possible because humanity possesses a safe and effective vaccine, the IAG statement said.
Less than 30 years ago, the number of polio cases was estimated to be at 350,000 in 125 countries. Today, polio is at its lowest point in history, with only 19 cases reported so far this year -- 13 in Pakistan and 6 in Afghanistan.
Much progress has been made, but health workers still face a formidable challenge in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, which are vulnerable to cross-border viral transmission between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where militants continue to violently oppose immunisations.
"FATA has recorded only one case in 2016, [a child] who was infected in Afghanistan," Dr. Ikhtiar Ali, chief of polio vaccination for FATA, told Pakistan Forward. "The child lived in an area where the Taliban have rejected vaccinations."
Protecting children against disease, disability
Maulana Samiul Haq, chief of Darul Uloom Haqqania, an Islamic seminary in Nowshera District, KP, said he regularly cites the importance of vaccination in his Friday sermons.
"The people have well-received our efforts, and the refusal against vaccination isn’t common as it was one year ago," he told Pakistan Forward.
The Taliban's propaganda claim that the oral polio vaccine causes sterility is false, he said, adding, "Everyone opposing polio vaccination harms our children."
Medical scientists from Islamic universities have declared vaccination safe and free from any agent meant to cause harm, said Samiul Haq the seminary chief, who is part of the international campaign launched by religious scholars.
In the past six months, he has held two polio vaccination drives at Darul Uloom Haqqania to send a message that children have the right to receive immunisations.
Religious scholars have played a major role in countering the Taliban's claim that vaccination is not allowed in Islam, Qari Rohullah Madni, chief khatib of Peshawar District, said.
"The people follow the ulema and accept their opinions on many matters," he told Pakistan Forward. "The ulema have been able to address 99% of refusals in FATA, where non-vaccination has been a huge problem."
Besides sometimes believing Taliban assertions about vaccinations, the people lived in fear of Taliban reprisals, so they avoided immunising their children, he said.
"Now the security situation has become almost normal, due to which vaccination activities are taking place regularly," he said, referring to counter-terrorism offensives that have chased Pakistani militants from most of their former strongholds since June 2014.
"We use all means to create a disease-free society," Madni said. "The drops are available free of cost, and every child needs vaccination up to the age of five."
"Non-vaccination can lead to disabilities,” he added.