New Delhi: The Centre has extended the duration of its largest vaccination drive – against Measles and Congenital Rubella – due to low coverage, days after reports emerged that anti-vaxxers were using a recent statement by Union Minister of State Kiran Rijiju to further their propaganda against the very idea of vaccination.
“There was a lot of misinformation floating on WhatsApp groups, that the vaccine causes impotency…that it causes autism…that it is an imported untried vaccine,” Dr. Pradeep Haldar, Deputy Commissioner (Immunisation), Union Ministry of Health, told News18.
The first phase of the MR immunisation drive currently afoot in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa, Puducherry and Lakshadweep was initially slated from February 5-28. However, it would now be extended by two to three weeks to reach all the 3.6 crore targeted children.
Reports have come from Bhatkal, Karnataka, in particular, of parents protesting the vaccination drive in schools. One report said that of the 7,198 students at Urdu medium schools in Bhatkal taluk under 15 years of age, only 1,287 have been vaccinated.
Paranoia about vaccines has been a long-standing problem in India, as was seen during the pulse polio campaign. However, this particular round of WhatsApp rumour mongering coincided with remarks tweeted by Union Minister Kiren Rijiju on February 13. “The Hindu population is reducing in India because Hindus never convert people. Minorities in India are flourishing unlike some countries around,” he had said.
The ramifications of Rijiju’s tweet weren’t confined to social media alone.
The message seems to have added fire to the anti-vaccination propaganda – about an insidious government campaign to stymie Muslim population growth – that can take a severe toll on the state of health, especially that of children, in several pockets of the country at risk for Measles-Rubella.
The states where the first phase of the MR campaign is ongoing have sizeable Muslim populations, and fringe elements here have been opposed to the vaccination program for long accusing it to be un-Islamic and harmful. Several activists and doctors on ground in such places have been fighting age-old prejudices in their campaign to make immunisation successful.
But sentiments by influential people like those that Rijiju echoed ten days ago, have proved to be a setback to such health programs aimed at curbing child mortality.
The Union Minister refused to comment for this story.
Sayed Ibrahim Khaleel Bukhari, chairman of education society called Ma’din Academy based in Kerala, said that the minister’s statement has now become a potent weapon for the anti-vaxxers.
“Yes, this new rumour has been doing rounds, which just reinforces old lies about a certain ‘systematic and deceptive program’ aimed at birth-control of Muslims. A lot of children have died due to these lies. People refrained from getting their babies vaccinated because the government never really tried to battle this misinformation with information,” he told News18.
He added that all Muslim organisations in the state have joined hands in actively battling such propaganda, telling people that immunisation programs are neither un-Islamic nor avoidable.
Dr. Haldar said that none of these rumours had any basis. The vaccine does not cause autism or impotency, which seems to be the biggest fear, and it has been in use for 40 years in India with many parents getting their children vaccinated in private hospitals.
“Whatsapp is such a private way of communication,” he said talking about the difficulty in controlling these rumours. “People don’t know the facts about Rubella, what it does to the human body. So they don’t know the importance of the vaccine unlike polio where anyone can picture the effects of the disease,” he said.
Rubella results in a mild rash on the face, swelling of glands behind the ears and low-grade fever. However, rubella infection during the first trimester of pregnancy can lead to Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) - birth defects include blindness, deafness and mental retardation. It can even cause stillbirth or fetal death. Globally, over 100,000 children are born with CRS each year.
In 2015, measles killed and estimated 134,200 children globally, mostly under the age of five. In India, it killed 49,200 children in the same period.
Some of the children who died from such easily preventable diseases in India, in 2015, were from Malappuram, Kerala’s only Muslim-majority district. The cause was their parents and community’s resistance to vaccination.
A doctor and a vaccination activist described the extent of harm that statements made by politicians have caused in his area.
“In 2015 several children died due to Diphtheria, a tragedy that could easily have been avoided through preventive medication. More deaths followed in 2016. All because of rumours like this. Quacks calling themselves naturopaths and acupuncture doctors to create markets for themselves, further fuelled prejudices towards drugs,” said Dr K Binub, convenor of Mission Mukthi, a pro-vaccination campaign, that focuses on Malappuram.
He added that he and his team had to take help of people like Bukhari and go deep inside pockets of society that resisted vaccination attempts.
“We had to work really hard, ask our under-graduate students to work with us. We even took the help of magicians to bust myths propagated by quacks. We also got active support from district health officers, writers and journalists. And since then things have started to change for the better,” he said.
Activists and doctors have also taken to broadcasting radio programs about the benefits of immunisation.
The silver lining is that the reach of vaccines improved from 65% to 92% in a period of two years, for children under the age of five.
The Union health ministry too has understood the need to spread awareness. It has now put out messages on WhatsApp and are currently looking for public personalities to lead to their campaign.
Doctors working on ground spoke to News 18 about how after campaigning and succeeding in their battle against anti-immunisation camp, they keep suffering setbacks in the form of rumours spread on basis of statements such as those made by Rijiju.
While Karnataka has managed to vaccinate 1.2 crore of their targeted 1.75 crore children, things are slower in Tamil Nash, where only 68 lakh of the 1.75 have been reached.
Dr KK Joshi, former president, Indian Association of Paediatrics, Malapuram, is one such doctor, who has spent considerable time and energy on immunising children in his state.
“On October 1 last year two children died in an orphanage due to Diphtheria. The anti-drug prejudice, due to rumours that it would cause sterility, was so strong that we had to give it in writing on official letterheads that our drugs wouldn’t cause impotency. We also got religious leaders involved in our campaign and slowly started making progress against anti-immunisation camp again,” he said.
Physicians, and social and religious activists on ground battling infant mortality haven’t lost hope despite the apparent damage that Rijiju’s statements have caused. They are counting on their sustained pro-immunisation campaigns, and their success in the past, to see them through this crisis.