An Imam promotes the power of vaccines in war torn Yemen
Medical doctors and religious teachers play a crucial role in building trust and convincing families to vaccinate their children against polio
It’s been a long day for Dr. Nabeel Abdu Omar Ali. Since early morning, he has been going from one house to the next in a community in Aden, Yemen – listening to the concerns of parents and speaking to them about the importance of vaccination to save their children from polio. And he plans to continue till the sun goes down.
“The weather is pleasant now and I want to meet as many parents as possible, especially those who have concerns about vaccines. In a month’s time, the heat and humidity will be unbearable, making it difficult to walk from house to house,” says Dr. Nabeel.
Nicknamed “the mobile imam” by his peers, Dr. Nabeel is a pediatrician by profession, and a certified imam (Islamic teacher) from the Ministry of Endowment in Southern Yemen. He uses his religious knowledge and medical facts to educate the public about the importance of vaccination in protecting children from polio and other deadly diseases.
A few weeks back, he visited several families who were refusing vaccines in a nearby neighborhood. In addition to speaking to them about the safety and benefits of the polio vaccine, the ‘mobile Imam’ administered polio drops to his grandchildren in front of everyone at the community meeting.
“When the people saw a doctor and Imam like me vaccinating my own grandchildren, I think it was easier for them to believe that the vaccine was safe for their children too,” says Dr. Nabeel with a smile.
Reaching out to other Imams for support
Dr. Nabeel frequently reaches out to other Imams, training them about the benefits of vaccination and encourages them to share with the public during their Friday sermons.
“Imams are very influential in our communities – to raise awareness, shape social values, and promote positive attitudes, behaviours and practices. For example, a single sermon is powerful enough to change misconceptions about vaccines in some communities. If Imams are fully equipped with accurate information, it goes a long way in build trust and creating vaccine acceptance among the people – helping children in the community to stay health and free from polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases,” he adds.
The ongoing conflict in Yemen has severely damaged the health and basic infrastructure. There are frequent interruptions in power supply, and this often creates suspicion among community members as well as Imams whether vaccines are being stored safely.
“I was training a group of imams and they shared their doubts about the safety of the vaccine. They were skeptical about how refrigerators could store polio vaccines safely when there are so many power cuts in the area.”
In response, Dr. Nabeel organized a tour for the group to a vaccine storage facility where they were able to see and learn about special refrigerators that are powered by solar energy when there are power cuts.
Promoting the benefits of vaccination for over a decade
Dr. Nabeel has been working for the immunization programme in Yemen for over 12 years, partnering with UNICEF for numerous polio vaccination campaigns and routine immunization services.
When he first started out as pediatrician, he met many children who were paralyzed by polio. He felt frustrated that so many children would have to suffer for the rest of their lives by a disease that could have been easily prevented by a vaccine. That is when he decided to dedicate his time to educate caregivers and parents on the benefits of vaccination.
“There are many misconceptions about vaccines. Throughout my career I have been confronted by people who were resistant to the idea of vaccination. Some people think that the vaccine will make them infertile, while others believe it’s some kind of a conspiracy. However, my many years of work in immunization and knowledge of religious scriptures has proven to be valuable so far in building trust in vaccine in communities,” says Dr. Nabeel.
The ‘mobile Imam’ is also quite adept in working with the media to promote vaccination. He is often seen and heard on TV and radio talk shows speaking about the benefits of vaccination and answering to questions from concerned parents and caregivers.
“I use a mixed approach to address vaccine hesitancy and dispel misinformation about vaccines. Sometimes it is helpful to talk about vaccines during Friday sermon, while other times, it is more effective to explain to a caller on a radio programme why vaccines are important,” he explains with a smile.