The Role of Religious Leaders in Polio Eradication

By invoking a moral imperative to fulfill society’s duty toward its most vulnerable members, religious leaders possess a unique opportunity to mobilize communities toward the global eradication of Polio.  When combined with a heightened sense of responsibility to address the socio-economic factors that contribute to the spread of Polio and other disease, this opportunity resonates with enormous potential for fostering an effective partnership between public health and religious leadership.The WHO Global Polio Eradication Initiative 2005 Annual Report cited “uncontrolled transmission of poliovirus in northern Nigeria,” and identified the states of Bauchi, Kaduna, Jigawa, Kano and Katsina as, “the greatest threat to the global eradication of Polio.”  With Nigeria as the epicenter of the disease on the African continent, the President of Nigeria, the World Health Organization and the Organization of the Islamic Conference sought our help to address the unwavering opposition to immunization in the Muslim north.

We have only to look at the example of Prophet Muhammad(SAW) to understand the role of a religious leader as an advocate for the health and well being of humanity.  [examples to be cited].  Following in the footsteps of the Prophet (SAW), we recognized that we had an obligation to inform local religious leaders about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine and to elicit their cooperation and commitment  to encourage their  respective communities  to immunize their children.

Supported by our knowledge of Qur’an, Hadith, Islamic Jurisprudence and esteem among Muslims internationally, in November, 2006 we embarked on a three week campaign to sensitize religious and governmental leaders and the people of the region to the necessity of immunizing their children against Polio. This presentation describes the way in which religious principles supported acceptance of the immunization program and the successful collaboration between WHO and religious leaders during our campaign.

In addition to the targeted northern states of Bauchi, Kaduna, Jigawa, Kano and Katsina, we traveled to Gombe, Sokoto, and Zamfara states, as well as the Arzai section of Kano City and Kaura-Namoda in Zamfara State.  We met with shaykhs, governors and malams, physicians, imams, local government councils and distinguished community leaders for the purpose of informing them of the mission to eradicate Polio in northern Nigeria.  Many of the meetings were held in mosques, while others took place outside the main mosque area. Quoting Qur’an and Hadith of the Prophet (SAW), we dispelled their fears and explained that immunization does not contradict Islamic principles.  In fact, Islamic principles support preventing disease, protecting children and saving lives. At the end of each meeting, the leaders we met promised to encourage and facilitate the immunization of the children in their respective communities.

In an effort to reach as many people as possible with the message that immunization was a duty parents owed to their children in accordance with ayats of Qur’an and hadith of the Prophet(SAW), we successfully utilized broadcast and print media to disseminate information about the safety and efficacy of the Polio vaccine.  Media coverage was provided by BBC/Hausa, Voice of America, FRCN, KSTV, New Nigerian Radio, Radio Kano, Triumph Kano, Sharifa Kano, Ray Power Kano, German (DW), Daily Trust and Vice of Nigeria, Leadership Campanies Newspapers, NTA, BATV, BRC Fed FM, Public Agenda and VON.

As we moved through the northern states visiting schools with student populations in the thousands, WHO organized and implemented massive immunization sessions.  During four such events, one in Bauchi, two in Kaduna and one in Kano, we personally administered the Polio vaccine to several children. Overall, thousands of children were immunized while we were in northern Nigeria, and thousands more after we left.

When confronted with the fear generated by rumors of contaminated vaccine that would render Muslim girls sterile, we confirmed that the vaccine is both safe and free of chemical substances that adversely affect fertility. Most importantly, we reminded the people that Allah alone is responsible for the creation of life:

To Allah belongs the  dominion
Of the heavens and the earth.
He creates what He wills
He bestows
(Children) male or female
According to His Will.
Or He bestows both males
And females and He leaves
Barren whom He will.

We referred to mankind’s mission on earth, which is to worship Allah and since human beings are composed of flesh and soul, each must be cared for properly. Quoting the hadith of Prophet Muhammad(SAW), “A strong believer is better and more loveable to Allah than a weak believer, although there is good in each of the two groups.” We emphasized that the Muslim Ummah must take as much responsibility for its physical health as it does for its spiritual health and quoted the hadith of the Prophet(SAW) “Seek remedy for sickness, for Allah did not send an illness for which He did not also send a remedy.”  We stated that the ability to prevent a disease is a Mercy from Allah and quoted from Suratul Rahman: Which of the Favors of your Lord will you  deny.?”

We explained that Allah enjoins the believers to seek protection for themselves and their families (Do not destroy yourselves; and in another ayat Do not kill your children).  Immunization is a way of seeking protection for your children, and surely, protection (prevention) is better than cure. We urged the  Muslim leadership of northern Nigeria go advise their people that it is an obligation to protect their children from contracting Polio, thereby saving both current and future generations and quoted from the hadith of the Prophet(SAW)

“It is enough a sin for one to neglect or let down his dependents.”

We explained that as Muslims it is our duty not to harm anyone and that the benefits of having halted the spread of Polio will reach us on this earth and in the Hereafter, for Allah says in Qur’an:

And if anyone saved a life
It would be as if he saved
The life of the whole people.

We referred to the decree by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that any person who has not been vaccinated against Polio will not be permitted to enter to perform Hajj.  Therefore, by implication,  immunization against Polio has become compulsory upon Muslims, for according to Muslim jurists, any pre-requisite for obligatory worship is itself obligatory.

Wherever we went throughout northern Nigeria, local religious and community leaders expressed sincere appreciation for our efforts to keep their children safe from the crippling and sometimes fatal effects of Polio and promised to continue to support immunization efforts.

In addition to working toward Polio eradication, our African American Islamic Institute(AAII) has established schools, health care facilities, adult literacy programs, food distribution and well digging projects, tree planting projects and orphan care programs.  We cooperate with the United Nations regarding Education, Health, Status of Women, Protection of Children, Alleviation of Hunger and Poverty and the Promotion of Peace.  We organize international Islamic conferences focusing on population and development issues and participate in conferences sponsored by UNFPA and UNICEF. We not only encourage religious leaders to become actively involved in promoting immunization against Polio, we encourage them to establish non-governmental organizations for the purpose of developing humanitarian programs and projects. In a world driven by greed and marred by corruption, religious leaders can bring a moral compass to the issues affecting humanity.  At the same time, through the work of their organizations, they will provide a view of Islam as a peaceful, compassionate religion whose adherents worship Allah and serve mankind.

The committed involvement of religious leaders to move the global eradication of Polio agenda forward may offer the greatest opportunity for success within the four endemic countries identified by UNICEF and WHO as India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.  By presenting immunization within the context of Islamic principles, Qur’an and hadith of Prophet Muhammad (SAW), religious leaders will be able to sensitize others to its benefits and dispel the misconceptions, rumors and fears that have rendered immunization efforts ineffective thus far.

An effective partnership between public health agencies and religious leaders requires creative planning.  For example, public health organizations might organize educational seminars for local religious leaders,conducted by internationaly respected religious leaders with health advocacy experience, to prepare them to serve as advocates for immunization against Polio in their respective communities.

Clearly, religious leaders have a significant role to play as educators and advocates in partnership with public health organizations toward the global eradication of Polio.  We offer our experience in northern Nigeria as a model for such a partnership.

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