Oct 2, 2006

Ticket to Mecca and Medina

It all started in the Muslim community with the rise of BJP to power in the North Indian states and later at the center. With communal bitterness very much in the air at that point of time, some crazy Mullahs – especially of Uttar Pradesh - started spreading canard by issuing fatwas that the oral polio vaccine administered to children was part of the government’s population control scheme particularly targeted at the Muslims. In Muslim dominated areas, posters were put up telling the people that the polio vaccine is part of an underhanded campaign to sterilise Muslim children and lower the Muslim birth rate. The semiliterate, illiterate and the ignorant of the community were easily influenced and many of them withheld their children from getting vaccinated.

So what happened? Muslim children stated getting affected with polio virus. Living in unhygienic areas with poor waste disposal and no access to clean water, transmission of the virus became very easy among the Muslim poor. And with people in such areas defecating in the open, as they don’t have access to lavatory, fecal-oral transmission of the virus became very easy. Polio usually infects children through drinking water contaminated with the excreta of the polio affected.

The governments changed but the distrust didn’t go away. The administrations didn’t give up and tried every trick in the book to drive home the importance of polio vaccination. Even celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan were roped in. It seemed like getting the desired results and India was on the verge of eliminating polio last year, when only 66 cases were reported, down from 1600 in 2002. This year, however, things have gone horribly wrong with the polio eradication drive - 338 cases have been reported already with 70% of those infected with polio are Muslim.

It seems the very old reasons are in play again in the Muslim community. This time the villain is not the present Muslim friendly Indian or the state governments, but the West. According to some Mullahs it is a Western plot to reduce the Muslim birth rate! So none of the present government’s initiatives to drive home the truth are having any effect because Mullahs’ fatwa is always the gospel truth for most of them. Even the health workers are beaten up and denied entry in Muslim dominated areas.

If the damage done by fatwas issued by neurotic Mullahs was not enough, the Urdu press - expected to be an upholder of truth - is busy fueling these rumours by publishing utter crap like “polio immunisation would lead to brain tumor and cancer”!

With such determined effort in the Muslim community- with neurotic Mullahs and the Urdu press joining forces - to keep their children from vaccination, the Indian and the state govts definitely have an uphill task.

But there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Saudi Arabia has decided to receive only polio-free pilgrims and has made it mandatory for Haj travellers below 15 years of age from all polio-infected countries to provide proof of immunisation. Without this certificate Muslims cannot enter Saudi Arabia to perform Haj. Now, for every Muslim it is mandatory to perform Haj at least once in their lifetime. So - at least for their own spiritual good - it is time responsible Indian Muslims took up the task of driving home the positive aspects of immunisation. The blunt message from the land of Mecca and Medina for the faithful is: you aren’t welcome if you aren’t immunised.

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