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Published in the 1-15 Nov 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

UNICEF's anti-polio campaign among U.P. Muslims

By Yoginder Sikand

Uttar Pradesh enjoys the dubious distinction of being the world’s epicentre of polio, accounting for almost 70% of the reported cases of the dreaded disease in the world. The virus appears to be fast spreading from western UP to other parts of the state and to other states of the country as well, threatening to re-introduce polio to regions that for some years have been free of the disease.
According to a recent survey report published by UNICEF, titled ‘When Every Child Counts: Engaging the Undeserving Communities for Polio Eradication in Uttar Pradesh, India’, UP’s Muslims are particularly vulnerable to polio. Although Muslims form around a fifth of the state’s population they accounted for almost 70% of the polio cases in 2002. This owes to a variety of factors, including high levels of illiteracy, rampant poverty, poor unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate state-provided health facilities in Muslim areas. To add to this is a marked reluctance among many Muslims to vaccinate their children, fearing that the polio vaccine being administered to them might be deliberately adulterated in order to render their children infertile as part of an alleged conspiracy to control Muslim population growth.

In order to tackle the polio problem among the Muslims of the western districts of UP, in mid-2003 UNICEF formulated a new strategy of reaching out to the community through Muslim community activists, involving a range of Muslim institutions in its programme. Three universities, the Jamia Millia Islamia, the Hamdard University and the Aligarh Muslim University, were roped in to provide institutional support, to train community workers to engage in advocacy and outreach work, and to plan, implement and monitor the anti-polio campaign in western UP. Nine districts in the region with a high concentration of Muslims were selected for the initial phase of the project: Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, Meerut, Baghpat, Moradabad, Bijnore, Bulandshahr, Ghaziabad and Aligarh. 

The campaign adopted a multi-pronged approach, using different means to get its message across. UNICEF assisted the Aligarh Muslim University’s Medical College to run two health clinics in high-risk localities in Aligarh town. This was supplemented by monthly health camps and outreach services in Aligarh. Several students and teachers of the Aligarh Muslim University visited various Muslim localities to promote awareness, through door-to-door visits, plays and street dramas, about the need for people to vaccinate their children against polio.

In cooperation with UNICEF the Jamia Millia Islamia developed an innovative approach to community health, by seeking to involve influential Muslim religious leaders in the anti-polio campaign. The Unit for the Study of Innovations in Development, part of the Jamia’s Social Work Department, developed an advocacy booklet in Urdu that quoted verses from the Qur’an to urge parents to vaccinate their children. It conducted a series of workshops with ‘ulama associated with madrasas in order to convince them of the urgency of the campaign and to get them involved in it. The Jamia’s Department of Islamic Studies sent scholars to sensitise local religious leaders about the importance of the issue. Several madrasas, including such influential ones as the Dar ul-‘Ulum, Deoband and the Mazahir ul-‘Ulum, Saharanpur, are said to have extended their cooperation, issuing appeals to Muslims after Friday prayers to inoculate their children against polio.

The UNICEF report speaks about the untapped potential of the madrasas, arguing that, given their influence, they can play a very crucial role in promoting community health. In this regard, it discusses the possibility of introducing health and immunization as a component of the madrasa curriculum. This task, it says, is one that institutions such as the Jamia Millia Islamia are best equipped to initiate, given their close links with the community. In addition to this, various other Muslim religious and community organisations can also be made to take an active role in community health awareness. According to the report, the UNICEF, through the Jamia Millia Islamia, has established an informal link with the All-India Milli Council, a national forum of ‘ulama and Muslim activists, to promote its health campaign. It refers to a member of the Council, Maulana Abdullah Mughisi, as something of a model in this regard, praising his efforts to promote the anti-polio campaign through his Friday sermons and by encouraging the students of the madrasa that he runs in Meerut to motivate families to vaccinate their children. The report also refers to UNICEF’s recently-established association with the Noori Markaz, a Barelvi Muslim organisation, and speaks of its plans of working with the Jamia Millia Islamia to develop a health education course for a range of Barelvi educational institutions as well. 

Despite the close involvement of Muslim community activists and religious leaders in the campaign, suspicions and fears remain and are difficult to dispel. The report quotes Khalid Zabir Dahr, a Unani doctor from Muzaffarnagar, as saying, ‘There is no short-cut. I have to explain and reassure people that there’s no government agenda to control the growth of Muslim population. I went door-to-door, sometimes taking my own children and giving them polio drops in front of suspicious parents’. ‘Many Muslims’, says Aftab Ali, a Muslim doctor from Meerut also involved in the campaign, ‘took the infertility rumours seriously’. ‘Due to their bitter experience with family planning as well as some kind of minority complex, they felt threatened’, he explains.

UNICEF has also entered into a partnership with Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, which has a well-known department of Unani medicine and a network of Unani practitioners among its alumni in western UP. As part of this collaborative exercise, UNICEF plans to organise with the Jamia Hamdard a series of training workshops for Unani physicians, chemists, National Service Scheme volunteers and local religious leaders. In March 2004, along with the Jamia Hamdard, the UNICEF supported a national convention on community health that was organised by the Milli Council at a madrasa in Meerut, which was attended by several thousand delegates from UP and elsewhere.

The report claims that because of the innovative approach that UNICEF has adopted in its anti-polio campaign, in particular the involvement of local Muslim community and religious leaders and religious institutions, the incidence of polio has considerably declined in UP. This community-based initiative could well serve as a model for other welfare schemes for marginalized communities. It could also serve, one could add, as a source of inspiration for the promotion of a more socially engaged Muslim religious leadership, one that is in tune with and sensitive to the practical, real-life problems of ‘ordinary’ people. 

The report may be procured from:
The Regional Adviser 
Programme Communication
UNICEF Regional Office for South Asia
PO Box 5815, Lekhnath Marg
Kathmandu, Nepal

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