Rumours may mar polio vaccination drive in Indonesia

Cikeusal, August 27:

Holding her two-year-old boy, Sari sits in the ramshackle health clinic listening intently as the

medical staff assures her and other villagers that the polio vaccine being used to fight a fast-moving outbreak is safe. But the impoverished mother of two remains unconvinced. She hints

she won’t take part in Tuesday’s nationwide immunisation campaign — the country’s largest ever public health exercise — because of unfounded rumours that a neighbour’s child contracted polio after ingesting drops of the vaccine earlier this year. “I’m afraid,” said Sari, who was among 62 per cent of parents in her village who refused to get their children vaccinated in June. “Maybe my boy will get paralysed.” With Indonesia’s caseload rising to 226 and the World Health Organisation saying the virus could spread to other Southeast Asian nations, the country is pulling out all stops to win over a sceptical public in its effort to vaccinate 24 million children under five years of age. A second round will follow on September 27.

Busloads of soap opera stars and singers are making the rounds to promote the $24 million campaign. As many as 750,000 vaccinators will be on hand on Tuesday at 245,000 posts set up at health clinics, bus depots, rail stations and airports. The country’s two largest Muslim organisations are endorsing it in television ads and the military and police have been called on to help deliver the oral vaccine to some of Indonesia’s 6,000 inhabited islands. “The biggest challenge is public trust,” said UNICEF’s Claire Hajaj, who works on the UN agency’s global campaign to eradicate polio in six countries where it is endemic and 17 others, including Indonesia, that have recently been re-infected. “The key is that community fears get addressed and they don’t turn into widespread vaccine avoidance,” she said. A 20-month-old toddler diagnosed with polio in March was the country’s first case since 1995. Since then, Indonesia has seen its caseload rise steadily mostly on the country’s main island of Java.