Afsar Hussain, an important contributor to the success story
By Shamila Sharma
“I will kill my son if you give him polio drops”, a man threatened, holding a sharp knife close his three-year old’s throat, terrifying the polio vaccinator who stood at his doorstep.
Many families in Dhakka village hurled abuses at polio volunteers and vaccinators, slamming the doors on their faces and throwing dirty water on them from roof tops.
“Women would draw out kitchen knives and threaten to stab us”, says Nasreen Kahtoon, a Community Mobilization Coordinator (CMC) with UNICEF in Dhakka for over a year and a half.
The village in Jyotiba Phule Nagar district of Uttar Pradesh, has 1,200 households, all Muslims belonging to Qureshi caste, traditionally butchers.
Till almost a year ago, few came to the polio booths, efforts to reach them at home would meet with strong resistance.
People feared the polio vaccine. They had heard it contained objectionable material, against Islam, and could even cause impotence.
But today Dhakka is a different story. Since January this year, it has seen 100 per cent community participation in the programme. The resisting households have been reduced to nil.
For the first time, all 13 mosques in the village made announcements in support of polio programme during the January round, which continued in the subsequent rounds.
The change was not easy. It took months and a lot of strategic planning. Repeated interventions by partner institutions of UNICEF’s Under Served Strategy helped in mobilizing the local influential leaders who played a key role in the turnaround.
The problems in Dhakka were typical of any under served or underprivileged area. Devoid of many facilities, people were suspicious of the programme. They failed to understand why polio vaccine was being delivered free of cost to their door step when what they wanted was basic health services, medicines for other diseases rampant in their area like tuberculosis.
They bargained that their needs be met first, at the same time falling prey to rumours.
The situation worsened with Urdu dailies giving air to rumours about OPV. The religious leaders, doubting the composition of the vaccine, refused to allow mosques in the village to make announcements for polio vaccination.
Community mobilisers Nasreen, Ayesha and Sualeha
The worst came when a ‘fatwa’ was issued by four religious heads questioning OPV contents. Circulated in the midst of September round, the fatwa impaired the subsequent round. The booth turnout dipped by as much as 8% in November.
To persuade the community, it became imminent to first persuade the Imam of the main mosque, other religious leaders and influential villagers.
Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI), a partner of UNICEF’s Under Served Strategy, organized counseling sessions to help change perception of the key persons towards the programme.
A series of meetings helped break the ice with influential locals like Afsar Hussain, a farmer, and Raus Saheb, a medicine shop owner.
“People were misguided. They understood when I explained, they started giving polio drops to their children,” says Hussain. The 85-year old farmer has helped in making OPV acceptable among a number of families.
With the help of influencers, JMI and underserved coordinators approached the religious leaders. A number of meetings took place to remove myths regarding the vaccine. All were convinced, except the Imam of the main mosque, who, however, agreed not to openly oppose the polio vaccine.
To reach the community, UNICEF’s community mobilisers – Nasreen, Ayesha and Sualeha – made interventions at religious gatherings, meetings at Mazaars (tombs of revered leaders) and get-togethers for festivals like Eid where people were told about the importance of polio vaccination.
Efforts are still on to convince the Imam.
The Under Served Strategy, evolved in mid-2003, has helped reduce significantly opposition to polio programme among the underprivileged, most of them Muslims, susceptible to diseases like polio and suspicious of what they get without asking for.
Besides JMI, Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Hamdard are partners in the Under Served Strategy and have helped in breaking tough resistance in critical western UP districts. Around 300 Muslim institutions are also supporting the programme.