Strengthening vaccine trust in Pakistan

How a vaccine refuser became an advocate for polio eradication.

Member of Provincial Scholars Task Force Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi vaccinating a child whose parents used to refuse vaccination. Killa Abdullah, Balochistan, July 2018. © D. Khan
Member of Provincial Scholars Task Force Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi vaccinating a child whose parents used to refuse vaccination. Killa Abdullah, Balochistan, July 2018. © D. Khan

Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi is a prominent religious scholar in a mountainous rural area of Killa Abdullah district, one of the poorest districts in Balochistan province, Pakistan. With a close connection to his community, who are mostly Pashtuns, he delivers the sermon each week during Friday prayers, and runs a religious seminary.

He is also a determined supporter of routine vaccination for all children, and an advocate for better health.

This might come as a surprise if you met Molvi Hameedullah just a year or two ago. For most of his life, he did not believe in the safety and effectiveness of the oral polio vaccine, the key tool of polio eradication.

“I was a religious scholar who was very sceptical of non-governmental organizations and the polio vaccine,” he reflects.

“After reading anti-vaccine books and papers, I began following the work of anti-vaccine campaigners. Soon, I came to consider it my religious duty to spread awareness against the polio vaccine.”

“But it all changed when I was invited to a two-day International Ulema conference in Islamabad where religious scholars from all over Pakistan and other Islamic countries were invited to debate polio vaccination.”

The conference Molvi Hameedullah attended was hosted by the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication (IAG). The IAG was launched in 2014 by leading Islamic institutions including Al-Azhar University, the International Islamic Fiqh Academy (IIFA), the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

For Molvi Hameedullah, attending the conference marked the beginning of a change in perspective. “At the conference, I was given an opportunity to discuss my apprehensions towards polio vaccine. The talks I had motivated me to further research the pro-polio vaccine stance, and I started meeting with religious scholars in Karachi to debate polio vaccination.”

“Through talking to these people, I was getting a completely different picture to what I had believed earlier.”

By educating religious leaders and scholars about the poliovirus, and explaining religious justifications for vaccine acceptance, the IAG and its national equivalent equip people like Molvi Hameedullah with the tools to act as health advocates. The same skills that help scholars engage with parents about the polio vaccine are applicable for wider health, including improving routine immunization, hygiene practices, and maternal and child health.

After the conference Molvi Hameedullah was offered support by other vaccine-promoting scholars.

“I received a book from a religious support person working for polio vaccination in my area. Included were dozens of fatwas from highly esteemed madrassahs and religious teachers. I was initially sceptical, so I telephoned the madrassahs who had written them. To my surprise, all the fatwas were genuinely issued by them, and they also urged me to support vaccination wherever I called.”

Today, Molvi Hameedullah teaches similar fatwas as a member of the Provincial Scholar Task Force under the National Islamic Advisory Group. Most Task Force members have an honorary position, and are not paid a salary. Instead, the local government facilitates their transport and communication needs during immunization campaigns. Of his new role Molvi Hameedullah says, “I was faced with a different problem. I had been working against polio vaccination for many years, and now felt that I had done a great damage to the children and parents of my community. I felt it was now my absolute religious duty to negate all that I had taught before. I decided to step forth, and started working in the community voluntarily to promote vaccination.”

Religious refusals in Molvi Hameedullah’s area have declined. He has begun supporting other ways of ensuring that every child receives a vaccine, including by recruiting women vaccinators.

He acknowledges that the work he does now is not easy. He and his fellow scholars sometimes face challenges from those accusing them of having a political agenda, and changing beliefs informed by years of cultural and religious tradition takes time and patience. But he vows to continue his new mission until eradication.

There have been no cases of polio in the area of the district that Molvi Hameedullah covers since he joined the Provincial Scholars Task Force. Looking ahead, he is determined not to stop until all of Pakistan is polio-free.

Since he joined the Provincial Scholars Task Force, there have been no polio cases in Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi’s district. © D. Khan
Since he joined the Provincial Scholars Task Force, there have been no polio cases in Molvi Hameedullah Hameedi’s district. © D. Khan

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