A religious decree (fatwa) by Pakistan's powerful religious alliance is motivating residents of the country's northern tribal areas to allow polio vaccination of their kids after initial reluctance.
"I got my sons vaccinated last week as I became satisfied after reading the fatwa," Momin Khan, an inhabitant of Kohistan town which touches with southeastern Afghanistan, told IslamOnline.net.
Qazi Hussein Ahmed, the president of the Muttehida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), and its General Secretary Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman issued a fatwa in January urging residents of the northern tribal areas to allow health workers to administer polio drops to their children.
The move was taken after a local imam had warned residents that the vaccination aimed at sterilizing Muslim children to stop the growing Muslim population in the world. In response, local elders had denied access to health workers into their areas and thousands of tribesmen had refused to get their children vaccinated. But the MMA fatwa urged locals to inoculated their children against polio in order to protect them from various deadly diseases and raise them as healthy Muslims.
Various other fatwas have also been issued by the local scholars in different tribal areas where the people refused to allow the health workers to administer polio vaccine to their children.
"Hundreds of people who earlier had refused have got their children vaccinated," said Khan.The polio, which once affected millions of children, attacks the central nervous system, often causing paralysis, muscular atrophy and deformity. Between 5% and 10% of those infected die when their breathing muscles become paralyzed. It is usually contracted through exposure to contaminated water.
Pakistan is one of only four countries where polio remains endemic. The others are Nigeria, India and Afghanistan. The World Health Organization (WHO) recorded 39 cases of polio in Pakistan in 2006, up from 28 the previous year. The polio is concentrated in North-West Frontier Province, where the provincial government.
Khan said he changed his mind after reading the MMA fatwa.
"I had almost been convinced by one of my relatives who works in the health department, but I, like my several other relatives, was still reluctant to get my children vaccinated," he recalled. "However, the reluctance went away when I read the fatwa." Sabz Ali, another resident, also got his son and daughter vaccinated after the MMA fatwa.
"I didn't take it serious when the health worker who came to my home and tried to convince me to get my children vaccinated," he told IOL. "The only thing in my mind was the order of tribal elders (against vaccination). I simply refused.
"However, when I heard that my two neighbors who too had refused to get their children vaccinated, allowed the health workers to administer polio drops to their kids, I immediately went to them, and asked why did they do that?" Ali remembered. "They showed me the fatwa (issued by MMA leaders), and then I too had no reason to refuse for that."
A new survey by Gallop Pakistan, one of most prestigious survey firms in the Asian Muslim country, showed that about 71 percent of Pakistanis trust religious scholars as compared to only 29 percent who consider secular politicians more trustworthy. The survey, which involved 1100 people of different income groups, areas, age, and education, showed that a majority of Pakistanis also trust teachers, doctors and labor leaders.
The health workers had been threatened with "social boycott." "I was about to submit my resignation as even my family members had refused to talk to me if I didn't leave my job," Hidayat Amin, a local health worker, told IOL. He said that many literate locals had secretly allowed him to administer polio drops to their children before the MMA fatwa. But they were afraid of the curse of the social boycott, he added. Social boycott is an old tribal custom under which the whole village or tribe does not sit, talk or even shake hand with a person penalized by the Jirga (assembly of elders).
The situation has greatly changed since the MMA fatwa.
"The conditions are much better for us now," said Amin.
To dispel the locals' fears of the polio vaccination, he carried copies of the MMA fatwa in his bag, which, he added, worked like a "magic ring" to persuade the tribesmen.
Gul Nabi Khan, the local health officer of a bordering town of Zhob, in Balochistan province, came up with an innovative idea to dispel the locals' fears. "The local chief cleric had issued a fatwa against polio vaccination, and a vast majority of the inhabitants refused to allow us to administer polio drops to their children," he told IOL.
"All of a sudden, I had something in my mind. I took my three-year old son with me and went to main town mosque to meet the religious scholar. "I told him if these polio drops are meant to sterilize the children, then I administer polio drops to my son first in front of you. And I did that." Since then, the situation has totally changed, said Khan. "On the next Friday sermon, the scholar exhorted the people to get their children vaccinated," he added.
"Since then, we have had no problem here."
Pakistani scholars have blamed the anti-polio vaccination fatwa. "Those so-called religious scholars who issue such kind of fatwas, they make mockery of Islam," Mufti Muhammad Naeem, the head of Jamia Binoria Karachi, told IOL. "I can just pity for them. They have no knowledge what's going on in the outside world," he added. "I don't know who told them that polio drops are meant to sterilize the children, but I am surprised whether they had consulted with some senior religious scholars before issuing such fatwas." Naeem said fatwas should be issued only after in-depth consultations and study.
"A fatwa about any matter should be issued after deep study and consultation, especially in health-related issues," he asserted. Qari Zameer Akhtar Mansoori, a prominent religious scholar, agreed. "I wonder who has given them the authority to issue such kind of fatwas," he told IOL. He said local scholars who issued the fatwa against polio vaccination had no idea about the vaccine. "Polio drops are administered all over the Islamic world. If there had been any thing like sterilization, then not merely several fatwas against it would have been issued, but it would have also been banned in various Islamic countries."
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