Guestview – How faith leaders can be our greatest allies against polio

April 26, 2013

(A local health worker carries vaccination kits into a vehicle at a distribution centre ahead of the start of a nationwide polio immunization campaign  in Lagos February 21, 2011. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Mercy Ahun is Special Representative to Eligible Countries for GAVI, a public-private partnership that works with governments, vaccine producers, civil society organizations and others to expand access to vaccines and immunization in the developing world.

By Mercy Ahun

Attacks on polio immunization workers in Pakistan have drowned out the celebrations of so much recent success in immunization work. Pakistan remains one of only three countries in the world where polio still exists, but efforts to bring vaccines to all corners of the country have been politicized to a tragic extent.

In almost every country in the world—including Pakistan—expanded access to old and new vaccines has saved hundreds of millions of children’s lives. Working together since 2000, global organizations, country governments and civil society have prevented more than five-and-a-half million deaths.

Newer vaccines have just begun the task of protecting children against pneumococcal and diarrheal diseases, among others. We’re also on the verge of achieving eradication of polio. Yet as we celebrate our success, we’re also saddened by the tragic murders of health workers not just in Pakistan, but in Nigeria, South Sudan, and other insecure countries.

While it’s unclear who was responsible for these attacks, and the media has speculated about the religious and political motives, here’s what I do know: mothers I’ve met with in Northern Nigeria and across the world care about their children’s health. They want to protect their children from not just polio, but from measles, meningitis and other vaccine-preventable diseases. We must ensure that we help them do this. At stake is the opportunity to bring the benefits of cutting-edge science to bear on diseases that exact a terrible and deadly toll on vulnerable children in developing nations.

(Workers of an anti-polio driveat a protest rally organized by the Vaccinators Welfare Association against the killing of their colleagues in Karachi December 19, 2012. Three workers in a polio eradication campaign were shot  and two of them were killed in one of an unprecedented string of attacks over the past three days that has partially halted the U.N.-backed campaign. The banner in Urdu reads, “Arrest and punish the killers of anti-polio drive workers and pay compensations to the families”. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro )

How can we ensure that the fears fanned by the horrible murders do not deter a community’s support for vaccination? I strongly believe that we in the global health and vaccine community must continue to align our efforts with communities of faith.

Last month, when Islamic leaders and WHO officials met in Cairo, it became clear that Muslim leaders have been, and continue to be, great advocates for immunization. During this meeting, Muslim scholars condemned the attacks, and agreed to collaborate closely to plan strategies to reach children in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. This leadership was on display again at the first-ever Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi this week.

We’ve known for years that faith-based organizations and leaders are fundamental to our success in delivering health services to those who need them most. Our partners, including Islamic Relief, WorldVision, Catholic Relief Service and LDS Charities, have provided thousands upon thousands of volunteers, millions of dollars in donations, and on-the-ground delivery of life-saving technologies to some of the hardest to reach and most remote communities across the developing world.

We must also look to local religious and community leaders in regions of conflict because we know that the imams, clerics, priests, pastors, preachers, church leaders and local chiefs across these regions are committed to the same goal as we are – saving the lives of children and building the foundation of a healthy and stable society.

(A child receives polio vaccination drops as others stand in a line during an anti-polio campaign on the outskirts of Jalalabad February 11, 2013. REUTERS/ Parwiz )

In India, experts in Muslim communities found that doctors and medical experts alone could not calm misgivings about the polio vaccine. To support the anti-polio effort, religious leaders used their loudspeakers in the mosques to call on parents to bring their children to be immunized.

As a result, between January 2011 and January 2013, not a single case of polio was reported in the country. This is a testament to the power of collaboration and the essential role of faith-based leaders in promoting healthy families and communities.

This holds true across many other regions. In parts of Africa, organizations that are inspired by faith fund as much as half the healthcare budget. In my home country of Ghana, these organizations deliver an estimated 42 percent of all health care services.

What is it that unites and drives these faiths? As a woman of faith, I believe we are called to service. It is a violation of human rights to fail to save lives with tools we have at hand. In 2013, no child should suffer or die of a vaccine-preventable illness; yet 22 million children lack access to vaccines and even the most basic medical services.

I suspect that this desire for equity and justice drives many people of faith. From the cathedrals of Italy, to the rural churches in my home country of Ghana, to the mosques of Pakistan and Nigeria, I believe we share a vision of a world where all children have the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong.


No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see