Qazi Zainus Sajidin, the city Qazi of Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, has an added responsibility these days.
Anyone who listens to his sermons, gets a surprise when nearing the end of his takreer (speech), he underlines the importance of vaccinations and how a timely dose can save the lives of children.
Qazisaab is not the only cleric in the region who has sort of metamorphosed, albeit partially, into a new avatar. There are others as well in the region of Western UP. This is to counter the decision by over 70 madarsas in the area asking people to keep their children away from vaccinations. Some people active on 'WhatsApp University' have spread a rumour far and wide that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine can make their children impotent. Several madarsas have even asked parents not to send their wards to the institution for a few more days so that health officials could be turned back.
Thanks to recent visits by senior health officials of the region, informing people like Qazisaab about the perils of not administering vaccines for spurring some clerics into action. Remember, the government's own reports tell us that more than 49,000 children died in 2015 because of the highly contagious measles, which spreads through coughing and sneezing. A simple vaccination could have prevented some these deaths.
In an informal discussion, Qazisaab tells people how the number of global Ulema organisations over the years, have ruled that it was the duty of every Muslim to get their children vaccinated. A key input that he provides relates to a seminar held in Kuwait (1995), organised by the Islamic Organisation for Medical Sciences, attended by 100 top Islamic scholars, who had declared that the gelatin used in vaccines was sufficiently purified.
This is not the first time one is hearing about resistance to vaccination in this region, especially among the minority community. Rumours about 'western conspiracies' to make Muslims impotent via vaccination keep appearing off and on.
The only saving grace in the whole turn of events is that health workers are not being intimidated, which is not the case across the border.
In Pakistan, health workers and their associates face a bigger challenge, as the influence of the conspiracy theorists, blaming every ill on Western world, has been so overwhelming that the Taliban and similar Islamist militants have no qualms in killing them. Many extremist groups have spread rumours that the vaccination drives are a front for espionage or a conspiracy to sterilise Muslims. Attacks on polio teams in the border regions are common.
In March 2018, militants attacked a polio team in Pakistan’s tribal region bordering Afghanistan, in Safi tehsil of Mohmand Agency, killing two workers and abducting three others, officials said.
A year and half earlier, a report said that 'More than 100 people have been killed in such attacks since December 2012.'
Leading physicist and human rights activist Pervez Hoodbhoy had expressed his deep anguish over the state of affairs in Pakistan a few years ago, where killing of innocents at the hands of terrorists of various hues has become a regular feature. In an article soon after the massacre of 132 children in Peshawar Military School by Talibani militants, Hoodbhoy had written
If Pakistan had a collective conscience, just one single fact could have woken it up: the murder of nearly 60 polio workers — women and men who work to save children from a crippling disease — at the hands of the fanatics.
Hence the horrible inevitability: from time to time, Pakistan shall continue to witness more such catastrophes. No security measures can ever prevent attacks on soft targets. The only possible solution is to change mindsets.
Resistance to vaccines is not limited to Pakistan and the minorities in India.
A few months ago, the Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa against the MMR vaccine. This had happened over doubts that gelatin derived from pigs was part of the vaccines. That would make it haram (not allowed). They had asked the Serum Institute of India, the supplier of the vaccines, to avoid using gelatin from pigs in the vaccine.
Perhaps the newest 'kids' on the vaccine resistance block are the Right-wing populists in Europe.
The growing anti-vaccine movement in the European continent, fuelled by the social media and Right-wing populists, has become a cause for concern among global health activists. The marker of its impact was that measles outbreaks surged to a 20-year high there.
An analysis of World Health Organisation data by The Guardian tells us that the number of cases of measles doubled in 2018 as compared to 2017, and would top 60,000 this year. The number of deaths due to measles has also doubled. Till date there have been 72 deaths.
According to The Guardian report,
Populist rightwing politicians, from the US to Italy, Poland and France, have jumped on the anti-vaccine bandwagon, supporting the sceptics and championing the right of parents not to immunise their children in countries where it is mandatory before starting school.
The rationale provided by those resisting these vaccines is rather simplistic. Claiming that they are opposed to globalisation and profiteering MNCs, they seem to be falling prey to 'fake news' which says that these companies are disseminating viruses into the population to sell vaccines. Members of the Five Star Movement in Italy, supposed to be anti-establishment, and its Far Right ally had no qualms in sacking the entire board of the country's leading committee of technical-scientific experts.
According to a researcher, there is an interesting commonality between the populists and anti-vaccine people, where both “share a mistrust in authorities and even scientific expertise”.
Coming back to Qazisaab's country, India, while the majority community has accepted vaccines for various purposes, its own record as far as following 'scientific expertise' and advice is rather dismal.
With the ascent of Hindutva Supremacist forces at the Centre, attempts are on to provide new legitimacy to pseudoscience. One of the prime examples of this is that 'cowpathy' or 'cow science' has emerged as a premier branch of research with all sorts ofspurious claims about cow urine making headlines.
And this despite the fact that cow urine is no different from human urine. It predominantly comprises water (95%), minerals like sodium, potassium, phosphorus, creatinine and epithelial cells. None of these substances have anti-cancer effects.
It was only last year that a National Steering Committee was formed for ‘Scientific Validation and Research on Panchgavya(SVAROP). Panchagavya is the most important of all the various medical preparations made from cow’s excretions. It is a mixture of five (pancha) products of the cow (gavya): milk, curd, ghee, dung and urine.
Anyway, more about cow urine and cow's excretions sometime later.
(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)