Key Indian state turns the tide against polio
(Top) Executive members of Rotary’s Ulema Committee for Polio Eradication meet in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, to analyze polio trends and plan strategy to end polio in the state. At center is RI Director Ashok Mahajan, committee chair. Photo courtesy of Ashok Mahajan
(Bottom) More than 5,000 people ran in Lucknow’s 11-kilometer mini-marathon in February to promote public support for making Uttar Pradesh and India polio-free. Photo courtesy of UNICEF
Last year, Uttar Pradesh not only accounted for nearly 40 percent of India’s 864 polio cases but more than a quarter of those worldwide.
If current trends continue, however, India’s most populous state will no longer qualify as the “poliovirus capital of the world,” as some health experts have called it.
Eighty percent of Uttar Pradesh’s 339 polio cases occurred in the Muslim community in 2007. But a Rotary-led initiative helped drop that rate to 30 percent of 20 cases during the first three months of 2008.
Overseeing the state’s effort to end polio is the Ulema Committee for Polio Eradication, established by Rotary International in July 2007. (Ulemas are leading Muslim legal experts in Islamic law.) Nearly 200 Muslim clerics and school representatives at the meeting received a booklet published by India’s National PolioPlus Committee, which linked polio immunization to the duties of parents as explained in the Quran. The booklet also listed the names and phone numbers of Ulema committee members who could be contacted to clear up any misconceptions about the polio vaccine.
Since that meeting, committee members have visited districts in Uttar Pradesh that reported large numbers of polio cases and convinced parents that the polio vaccine was safe and not contrary to Islam.
“The ulemas have done a remarkable job in making the polio program acceptable to hitherto ignorant Muslim parents,” said RI Director Ashok Mahajan, chair of the committee, at a meeting of the executive committee in January. “We want to spread the message of good health through the ulemas, who are so much revered in the Muslim community.”
“Misconceptions and rumors that were widespread in the community against polio have almost been removed, due to the efforts of the Ulema committee, and we will continue with our efforts until polio is eradicated,” said committee member Maulana Khalid Rashid Firangi Mahali, president of the Ulema Council of India. “Our religion is not against immunization. Even the Saudi Arabian government has issued a directive that pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina along with their children should carry polio vaccination certificates.”
In February, The Rotary Foundation awarded US$5.65 million to the World Health Organization and UNICEF for social mobilization activities and operational support focused on more than 4,300 high-risk communities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Foundation disbursed the funds from the $100 million challenge grant for polio eradication it had received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Rotary’s Ulema committee is a very positive development,” said Ananth Mishra, health minister for Uttar Pradesh. “Eradication of polio is possible due to the pioneering efforts of organizations like Rotary, and more NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] should pitch in to mobilize the masses to achieve such health goals.”