By Idhries Ahmad
MORADABAD, India, 19 February 2014 - Meet Hakeem Syed Masoom Ali Azad, one of the many heroes who led India to the victory over polio. India has completed three years without any case of polio. India’s accomplishment paves the way for polio-free certification of 11 member countries of South East Asia region of World Health Organisation.
This milestone is being celebrated across India as the country’s greatest public health achievement. As recently as 2009, India accounted for nearly half of all cases of polio, and was long considered one of the most difficult places in the world to eradicate the crippling disease.
Darkest hour before a new dawn
Back in 2002, when rest of India had taken giant strides in overcoming polio, northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, also India’s most populous state, inspite of best of its efforts had hit the wall in its fight to end polio. Of the 1600 polio cases reported in India that year, a whopping 80 per cent of them 1,242 cases, were in Uttar Pradesh, a state that had never in history disentangled itself from polio.
What was more worrying, was over 80 per cent of the children struck by polio in 2002 were predominantly boys and Muslims. A child from the Muslim community was five times more likely than a non-Muslim child to have not received even one dose of OPV.
The spiral in the cases of polio, at that time, was singularly blamed on the resistance by the underserved community to polio immunization drives. A large percentage of the community in many districts of Uttar Pradesh including Moradabad, felt that the polio vaccination was a a covert family planning drive and the vaccine contained substances that were forbidden under Islam.
Joining the forces to root out the virus
It was at that time, UNICEF and the other polio partners initiated the underserved strategy. The crux of the strategy was to ensure acceptance of OPV by the underserved communities with confidence building measure. Key partnerships followed with the Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia University and Jamia Hamdard and support of Muslim institutions such as the All India Milli Council, All India Muslim Personal law Board, Islamic Fiqh Academy, Darul Uloom Deoband, Jamait Ulama-i-Hind, All India Hajj Committee and key shrines.
The focus of the strategy was advocacy, immunization and prayers for polio eradication at festivals and religious congregations; mosque announcements for polio immunization, appeals and fatwas in support of the programme. As part of the well thought out strategy, an Ulemma Committee in Uttar Pradesh was formed and senior Muslim scholars and religious leaders like Hakeem Syed Masoom Ali Azad were approached to address issues of resistance in Muslim communities against the polio vaccine.
Hakeem Syed Masoom Ali Azad has been the Shaher Imam (chief cleric of the city) of Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh, for last twenty seven years. The ancestors of Syed Masoom Ali Azad have held the position of Moradabad’s Shaher Imam for the last 200 years. An authority on Islamic jurisprudence, the Shaher Imam is the most respected person in his community. His word is treated as gospel and whenever he has a message for his community; it is normally accepted
However, when the Shaher Imam associated himself with the polio immunisation campaign in Moradabad, he found stiff resistance from his community. “It was tough. There were so many misconceptions about the vaccine causing impotence or being manufactured from haram substances,” he says. “When I approached people, they didn’t call me names or abused me like they did to the polio workforce, but they were not comfortable with my messages,” he adds.
For the Shaher Imam, the resistance was understandable, for like many other people in western Uttar Pradesh, he too had queries about the polio vaccination drive and the vaccine itself. The Shaher Imam sought information from UNICEF, WHO and partners as well as Muslim medical practitioners and was convinced that the vaccine wouldn’t cause any harm.
The oral polio vaccine was tested by the medical college at Aligarh Muslim University and the university publically declared that it was safe. This strengthened his belief that the vaccine was indeed safe and for the good of the community. An advocacy booklet, prepared by the Jamia Millia Islamia University and UNICEF, with verses from Quran and Hadith (sayings of the prophet Mohammed) promoting child health and in support of polio vaccination, further convinced him
The final victory
The Shaher Imam used all the knowledge that he had acquired and the advocacy booklet to convince the community to vaccinate their children. He went door to door as well as used his pulpit during Friday prayers to appeal for polio vaccination. “I first got my grandson immunized for everyone to see and be convinced that the polio vaccine is safe. “I would tell them the welfare of the children is the duty of every parent. If they will not vaccinate the children against polio, they will be liable to God’s punishment for not fulfilling their responsibilities,” says Shaher Imam.
Soon the Darul Aloom Deoband (One of India’s biggest Islamic seminary) issued a fatwa (an Islamic edict) that ruled that polio vaccine was safe and that it contained no substances which are not permissible in Islam.
“Given the fatwa came from a such a highly respected institution of the country, Muslims were bound to pay heed to the fatwa,” says Shaher Imam. On many occasions, Shaher Imam would inaugurate the polio immunisation booth, as the ceremonial start to a polio campaign. “I would tell them, if diseases are sent by Allah, so too are the medicines,” the Shaher Imam adds.
The Shaher Imam’s efforts along with other Imams in Uttar Pradesh and thousands of frontline workers have contributed to break the last pockets of resistance in Uttar Pradesh.
As India today celebrates the triumph over polio, the Shaher Imam has a word of caution, “polio is still endemic in India’s neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan. We need to be vigilant that the gains we have made are not frittered away,” signs off the Shaher Imam. Join us in congratulating Shaher Imam along with thousands of religious leaders of Uttar Pradesh who supported the polio eradication programme selflessly and helped India stop polio.
They have been brilliant in their efforts and we thank them all for their work. Thank You Shaher Imam.