Unwelcome return of polio

Health alert: Children lining up to get vaccinated against polio at Sigli Town Square in Pidie, Aceh province. — AP

CHILDREN in school uniforms and toddlers with their parents lined up for polio vaccinations at Sigli Town Square on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, after four children were found infected with the highly contagious disease that was declared eliminated in the country less than a decade ago.

The virus was first detected in October in a seven-year-old boy suffering from partial paralysis in the province of Aceh near Sigli.

Since then, three other cases have been detected, prompting the mass immunisation and information drive.Officials say polio immunisation rates in the conservative province are well behind the rest of the country, with efforts hampered by widespread disinformation the vaccine is incompatible with religious beliefs, among other things.

The campaign, which started on Monday, aimed to vaccinate some 1.2 million children in the province, said Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the Health Ministry’s director-general for disease control and prevention.

“There is no cure for polio. The only treatment is prevention and the tool for prevention is vaccination,” Rondonuwu said.

With some 275 million people, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous and the largest Muslim-majority nation.

Aceh is particularly conservative and is Indonesia’s only province allowed to practise syariah, a concession made by the national government in 2006 to end a war with separatists.

False rumours that the polio vaccine contains pork or alcohol – prohibited according to Muslim beliefs have proliferated, especially in rural areas, complicating vaccination efforts, said the head of the Aceh Health Office, Hanif, who only goes by one name like many Indonesians.“We need support from all parties, including religious leaders, so that people understand the importance of immunisation,” he said.

Azhar, the father of the seven-year-old who contracted polio, said he had opted not to immunise his son after other villagers told him the vaccines may contain harmful chemicals or non-halal substances.

For Dewi Safitri, a mother of three who was getting them vaccinated on Monday, it was a matter of not knowing it was necessary.

She said she was convinced after health workers spelled out the risks of paralysis or death if her children were to go unvaccinated.

The World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the global eradication of polio in 1988. Since then, wild poliovirus cases have decreased by over 99%, according to the World Health Organisation.

It was eliminated in Indonesia in 2014, and is today only still endemic in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Polio primarily affects children under the age of five, says the WHO. But unvaccinated people of any ages can contract the disease, and sporadic cases still crop up. — AP

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