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Stories from the Field


Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe



“All of you are guardians, and all of you will be asked about the wellbeing of those you are responsible for.“ –An Islamic Hadith

“But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he has denied the faith...” – The Holy Bible, 1 Timothy 5:8

Religious leaders are vital to the worldwide effort to free children from the scourge of polio. In countries where polio has recently been wiped out (Angola, Chad, India and DRC), Islamic and Christian religious influencers were trailblazers in their communities. They built bridges to parents when trust was fragile, helped overcome rumors and misinformation, and tipped public opinion in favor of the polio vaccine. In polio-endemic Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan, it is vital to bring more influential religious leaders on board.

Now, with news of a fresh outbreak of polio in Somalia and Kenya, religious influencers have become more essential than ever to the worldwide effort to eradicate polio once and for all.

From an imam who preached against the polio vaccine until his own son was paralyzed; to women volunteers who bridge the gap between mothers and male religious leaders; to Somali religious leaders who’ve pledged to act as frontline advocates in the fight against the recent outbreak; religious influence has many faces.

A girl receives vaccination in Bossaso, Puntland, Somalia. Dhayi/UNICEF Somalia.

“Allah gave me a lesson. It was lack of awareness; we believed what a lot of other people were saying, that those who took the Polio vaccine would become infertile.”

On 5 June, 2012, Imam and Village Chief Abdelhadi Dajiru learned a lesson he will never forget. That was the day the influential imam saw polio with his own eyes – the day his youngest son, Ibrahim, suddenly lost the use of his legs.

For decades, the imam had preached against polio immunization campaigns. No one in his own household ever took the vaccine, and vaccination teams were denied entry into his home. Nearly half the families, in this village of 6000 people in Nigeria’s Kano State, followed his example.

Ibrahim was two weeks shy of his third birthday when the disease struck. Watching his son, now paralyzed in both legs, Imam Dajiru’s pain was immense. It was not just his son’s pain, and his own. It was also the pain of having misled so many others.

Turning pain into action, the Imam is now a fervent promoter of the polio vaccine. He has opened his house so villagers can see, with their own eyes, how polio affects little Ibrahim.

“Today I move around from house to house with the vaccination teams to make sure every child is vaccinated,” says the imam. “Today we have no more non-compliance.” In Friday prayers, Imam Dajiru urges every family to accept the vaccine against polio for their young children. Again and again, he asks them not to forget his own painful lesson.

Imam Abdelhadi Dajiru and his son, Ibrahim. Minjibur, Kano, Nigeria. Photo: Geir Furuseth/UNICEF.

“Do you know that, to go to the Holy city of Mecca from Nigeria, you have to take polio drops, since Nigeria is a reservoir of the virus?”

The woman of the house is silent as Volunteer Community Mobiliser Aisha Ibrahim speaks. Maybe the woman will tell her husband what Aisha has said, but it’s clear the decision about vaccination is not in her hands. Still, Aisha, who has ten children herself, leaves no stone unturned. Her own tragedy was too great.

Aisha got involved in the polio eradication effort after her 6-year-old daughter Mariyam was paralyzed by polio. To carry out her work, Aisha must rely on the endorsement and approval of her work by religious and other local authorities, most of whom are men. And yet, without women like Aisha who can literally “get a foot in the door” – in a place where many women would not open the door to a man – the effort to end polio wouldn’t stand a chance.

For more on Aisha Ibrahim, click here

Aisha Ibrahim. Hawan Dawaki, Kano, Nigeria. Photo: Heloise Vilain/UNICEF.

Polio vaccinator “Leena” goes from house to house in Jalalabad to protect children against polio. Leena’s name has been changed for security reasons; personal safety is a major concern for female polio workers and volunteers here, and yet they are essential to the effort.

In Afghanistan’s deeply conservative Southern Region, it is nearly impossible for a mother to interact with a man at the doorstep to her home. Yet 90% of all workers that knock on doors here, aiming to vaccinate every child under five against polio, are men.

The extreme difficulty in recruiting Afghan women to work in polio eradication here means that children as young as five or six years old must often interact with male polio workers at the doorstep, on their mothers’ behalf. They may be able to carry or lead toddlers and infants to the doorstep for vaccination, but such young children can’t be expected to understand the life-saving implications of the vaccine. As one example, it’s hard for so young a child to understand that their tightly-bound newborn sister or brother must be unwrapped to receive the vaccine because – among all the children in the house – the newborn is the most vulnerable to polio.

In Afghanistan’s 11 low-performing districts, 1.5% of all children under five are refused the vaccine – directly or indirectly – because their mother doesn’t understand or believe in the value of vaccinating every child each time the teams visit, or because she is unable to deliver the children to the vaccinators herself.

The case of Afghanistan highlights the role of female vaccinators and social mobilisers as a crucial link in getting the messages from polio workers and influential religious leaders to the ears of mothers at the doorstep.

“Leena.” Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Photo: Rajat Madhok/UNICEF Afghanistan

“We make an announcement at church before every polio campaign. We remind our fellow believers that God has created intelligence in Man for him to use. For some illnesses the Lord has blessed humanity with scientists who create medication, or vaccines that help protect us. These are tools given to us by God to protect us and to help us have better lives.”

Pastor Jean Abakar, of Chad’s Mongo Evangelical Church, laughs as he repeats the rumor he has heard:

“’Vaccines are a ploy from the West to make our children sterile and control the African population?’ Nonsense! Why would they want to do that? And if it really were the case, what an awfully difficult way to do it!”

Instead, in Pastor Jean’s church, “We discuss real, more important issues. Many of my fellow Christians ask me why different vaccines are given in different ways and with different frequencies. Some ask me why we keep on vaccinating against illnesses we have never seen in our villages. If I don’t have the answers, I invite our partners or the health authorities to answer these questions.”

Pastor Jean Abakar. Mongo, Chad. Photo: Nadim Boughanmi/UNICEF Chad.

“I kneel before Allah. But I am unable to stand on my feet before any man.”

As a teacher at a madrassa in one of the poorest parts of Karachi, Pakistan, Qari Aqeel educates children in the fundamentals of Islam and the Holy Quran. He also tries to ensure that every child at the madrassa is vaccinated against the virus, and tells students, from his own painful experience, what it is like to live with polio.

Now, as the Pakistan government shifts toward a communication approach that highlights the risk of polio and emphasizes vaccination as an Islamic responsibility, Aqeel has stepped further into his role as guardian – not just for the children who study at his madrassa, but for children all over Pakistan.

In a video aired on Pakistani TV, which aims to reach 71 million households, Aqeel takes the spotlight away from the politics and misunderstandings that can muddy the dialogue about polio vaccination. He brings the focus firmly back to what matters: The heart-wrenching impact of polio on a young life – and the imperative that people all over the world come together to end this tragic and preventable disease, once and for all.

For more on Qari Aqeel, click here

Qari Aqeel. Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: UNICEF Pakistan.

“My children used to go to the bathroom in plastic bags.”

Tina Temba (at left) is now building a latrine for her family, after neighbor and church member Victória Ferreira taught her that proper sanitation is vital to preventing polio and other life-threatening childhood diseases.

Victória, a social mobiliser and member of the 7th-Day Adventist Church in Cabinda, Angola, began making household visits within her community after she was trained in polio prevention, routine immunization and best practices in basic sanitation. Newly aware of the importance of good sanitation to children’s health, Victória made it her focus.

Before building the latrine, Tina disposed of her family’s waste in plastic bags that were then thrown on the ground. Victória knew that if Tina and other mothers continued to do this, the risk of spreading polio in their community would remain.

“I am very grateful to Victória. She gave me advice on how to build the latrine and why,” Tina Temba smiles. The latrine has given Tina’s family a way to keep waste contained, and Tina can now not only help keep her own children safe from polio, but can also feel good knowing that she is keeping other children in the community safe as well.

“The latrine provides a way to prevent polio and other illnesses that affect children,” says Victória. “If just one child has polio and the waste is not properly managed, all of the children in the neighborhood can be contaminated with the virus. With latrines, we can avoid polio in our area and hope that Angola remains polio free forever.”

Victória Ferreira and Tina Temba. Cabinda, Angola. Photo: Julie Hackett/UNICEF Angola.

''In 1880, when the Church came, they told us to stop our practices of natural medicine and bloodletting. Les blancs, they told us: ‘Stop using medicines to protect you. Stop protecting yourselves. The only great healer is God.’ So we took our methods and we threw them out. After we’d thrown out everything, les blancs came back to tell us: ‘Come, this time I will give you medicine to protect you.’''

Pastor Paul II, an influential pastor of the Kitawala Filadelphie Sect in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), used to counsel his many thousands of religious followers to refuse vaccination against polio. Now, years after UNICEF first approached him in 2009, he has become an ally in the fight to end polio.

The road to acceptance has been neither short nor easy. Still, trust-building efforts like this one are having an impact in the DRC. Katanga Province, where Pastor Paul II’s followers live, has had the world’s highest rates of refusal of the vaccine. But refusal rates halved in Katanga Province, over the course of the year 2012 – and the DRC is now celebrating a year with no new cases of polio nationwide.

For more on Pastor Paul II, click here

Pastor Paul II. Katanga Province, DRC. Photo: Vincent Petit/UNICEF DRC.

This “face of religious influence” is not just one face, but many. India’s highly-esteemed Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) played an important role as “religious influencer” when it carried out its own independent lab tests of the polio vaccine. It then issued an appeal to the Islamic community, testifying that the vaccine is safe and halal.

Along with this innovative take on religious influence, many more thousands of individual religious influencers participated in India’s successful fight to eradicate polio. Now, with the country free of polio, there’s room to explore further ways that religious influence can help save children’s lives and support their wellbeing. For example, more than 4500 mosques now announce not just polio campaigns, but Routine Immunization efforts that help prevent seven life-threatening childhood diseases.

India’s experience points to something very hopeful: the ways in which engaged religious and other social networks can produce results above and beyond the expected.

The sky may really be the limit, into the future, when it comes to using polio eradication networks to provide for children’s health and well-being in India. And – as more countries join India amongst the ranks of those that have eradicated polio for good – maybe even all over the world.

Aligarh Muslim University. Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh, India. Photo: Dr. Rahat Abrar/AMU.

Even as we come closer than ever before to ridding the world of polio for good, the recent outbreak in the Horn of Africa puts a fresh spotlight on the need to reach every last child. Here, a social mobilizer in Northwestern Somalia calls parents to bring children from their homes to be vaccinated.

With six new cases of wild polio virus recently reported in Somalia and Kenya, religious influencers – and the women who act as interlocutors at the doorstep – have become more essential than ever.

The good news is that lessons learned in other countries can help bring as many influential religious leaders on board as possible in Somalia and Kenya. Religious leaders are already playing a critical role in Somalia’s outbreak response. Local mosques and imams are announcing polio campaign dates, and influential religious leaders came together in Banadir, Somalia, to make a public plea for parents to vaccinate their children. The religious leaders’ plea – and their pledge to continue acting as frontline advocates for the vaccine – was covered on six Somali TV and radio stations.

The bad news is that this life-threatening, paralyzing disease has seized its chance, and an intensified round of efforts is needed, if we are to rid the world – and its children – of the virus once and for all.

Northwestern Somalia. Dhayi/UNICEF Somalia.

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

  • Faces of Religious Influence: Religious leaders help fight polio in Somalia – and across the globe

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