Eradicating Polio in The Muslim World
By Maya Sukkari
A hundred years ago, the very idea of wiping a disease off the face of the planet was unthinkable.
History had testified to the timeless omnipresence of horrifying infections; Thucydides wrote of how smallpox wrecked havoc in ancient Greek cities, the Old Testament speaks of rinderpest destroying whole populations of cattle, and the ravages of polio were painstakingly etched into Egyptian hieroglyphics. If such accounts had taught humanity that these diseases were part and parcel of the human experience, perhaps it may have seemed wishful thinking to imagine a world without them. Yet today, thanks to global vaccination efforts, we have had more than three decades without a single case of smallpox, and rinderpest is no longer a death sentence for livestock. Furthermore, experts predict that the eradication of polio is only a matter of time, yet the disease remains stubbornly endemic in conflict-prone areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. And with the World Health Organisation confirming several dozen new cases in Syria last month, the possibility of a polio-free world slips further and further into the future.
The highly infectious viral disease spreads via fecal-oral transmission and contaminated food and water, meaning it disproportionately affects young children in areas with poor sanitation and hygiene. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, neck stiffness, limb pain and, in a small number of cases, paralysis and death. Yet, if a sufficient number of children are fully immunised against polio, the virus is unable to find susceptible children to infect, and dies out.
However, alongside the problems of distributing inoculations in the midst of local violence and conflict, the greatest barrier facing the eradication of polio in such Muslim-majority nations is misinformation. While the internet and modern communications has made the dissemination of medical advice to a global audience possible, it has also meant that it is now easier than ever to spread fear, lies and extremist ideologies. Thus conspiracy theories abound that the vaccines are synthesised with pork products, or that they are part of a Western plot to sterilise Muslims en masse, while a minority of religious leaders have also suggested that immunisations may violate Islamic Law. Such ideas have found a ready audience with extremist factions, meaning health workers and volunteers have been targeted for kidnap and even murder. On 1st January 2013, seven charity workers were shot dead in the Swabi area of Pakistan, a further two were killed in June, and only last week, militants released seven kidnapped polio workers, on the condition that the government stop sending vaccination teams to the Bara area. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of those under the influence of such ideologues – often poor, rural communities – run the risk of disability and death from an easily preventable illness.
Here in the UK, the potential for affecting change is significant. Diaspora communities have the capability to inform their families back home of the severity of the disease and what can be done to combat it. MADE in Europe is one of these organisations reaching out to Muslims all over the UK starting with the use of a specific khutbah to address the reservations to polio vaccines, and to promote open and honest dialogue to ensure the truth, and not misinformation, prevails.
Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the inventors of the two most widely distributed polio vaccines, refused to patent their discoveries, and in the process forwent an estimated fortune of $7bn. This act of charity has enabled the polio vaccine to be distributed worldwide for minimal cost, meaning polio may very well soon follow smallpox and rinderpest as diseases confined to historical relics. But it will take the efforts of governments, NGOs, and ordinary people to take the last few steps to eradicate the disease once and for all, and we can do our part by telling our families and friends at home and abroad about the wholehearted permissibility and importance of immunisation, for our children and future generations.