The sudden spurt in measles cases in Malappuram and its neighbouring districts in Kerala exposes the growing aversion and resistance towards immunisation programmes. Out of 125 measles-infected children in the age group of 5 to 17, only six have been vaccinated, health officials said, while at least 60,000 in this same age group are not vaccinated in the area.

To add to the woes of health officials, many Muslim orphanages in the district take students from other states and later enroll them in schools, and most of these children coming from north and north-eastern states are not vaccinated, they said.

“Out of the 125 infected, more than 50 are from Kalpakanchery village alone. Our first priority is to contain the highly-contagious disease. We are giving symptomatic treatment to the infected with additional dose of vitamin A,” said Malappuram district medical officer (DMO) Dr R Renuka.

The DMO said she came to know about the proposed visit of the central team but was yet to get a date. “True, such incidents stress the need for a vigorous drive of basic immunisation and we have to dispel reservations of some parents,” she said.

In Muslim-dominated areas, there is a fierce resistance and mistrust for vaccines. Many fall prey to misinformation campaigns that claim most vaccines are a creation of the West. Another is that vaccines affect the fertility of children when they grow up and most of them carry pork-based gelatine, making it ‘haraam’ (forbidden) in Islam. There have even been instances when health workers were blocked from entering villages.

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Health experts fear resistance to vaccine may result in recurrence of some of eradicated diseases. In Malappuram six years ago, five diphtheria cases were detected and three of them later died. The district’s vaccination rate is still below 50 per cent while rest of the state it is above 90 per cent, health ministry statistics show.

Five years ago, the government had reportedly made vaccination mandatory for all children for taking admission in schools, but the results are not too encouraging, health officials said.

Twelve diseases are covered under the central government’s universal immunisation programme – polio, diphtheria, pertussis, measles, tetanus, mumps, rubella, tuberculosis and hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis and diarrhoea.

While experts believe that measles is not a life-threatening disease, it can turn into pneumonia, bronchitis and serious chest infections in some children with weak immunity.

“If you want to eradicate a disease, you need to have a high rate of immunisation against that particular disease. But in certain areas vaccination rate is very poor. We have to strengthen it and ward off unnecessary fear and reservations,” said public health and internal medicine expert Dr NM Arun.

Last week a seven-member panel set up by the government to formulate a vaccine policy submitted its report to the health ministry calling for strengthening the universal immunisation programme, introduction of adult immunisation and vaccination against enteric fever and hepatitis A.

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