Mobile Mullahs on a Mission to Eradicate Polio
Each afternoon of a polio campaign in Kandahar, after the day’s door-to-door rounds have been completed, the vaccination teams congregate at health facilities. Most go right inside to drink tea, refrigerate their remaining stocks of vaccine and brainstorm operations for the next day.
Shah Mahmood, 56, and Abdul Rashid, 48, sit on their motorbikes consulting maps in animated conversation with the health workers about local families who refused to vaccinate their children against polio.
Both are mullahs – religious leaders – who volunteered to support the program and, lately, their motorbikes have facilitated a novel program to use religious elders to sway those who resist vaccinations. Their efforts are now being expanded, with a further 10 mullahs being engaged in Nangarhar, in the country’s east.
In their role as freelance advocates these so-called “mobile mullahs” go a step beyond the conventional approach to health education. For the most part refusals based on religion are rare. Still, they occur frequently enough that during campaigns the mullahs remain on standby to intervene.
“Polio campaigns have been going on for so long it was easy to overlook the importance of vaccinating children,” said Mullah Rashid. “I’m doing this because ending polio is an obligation and I want to help my community.”
At the end of its first year, their efforts have achieved significant results, convincing up to 80% of the families who persistently refuse to vaccinate their children against polio to agree to vaccination. The Mullahs take their message directly to poor rural communities where modern health practices provoke deep anxieties.
“I think our work is very important. Parents may be aware of the risk of polio but still be scared of accepting the vaccinations for their children,” said Mullah Mahmood. “When we arrive at their homes and speak with them it establishes that vaccination is something that is supported by Islam and often this is enough to reassure them and make polio drops less threatening.”