Poliomyelitis, a contagious viral disease that once crippled and killed thousands of children annually, has been eliminated in most of the Western world thanks to a vaccine invented by Jonas Salk in the 1950s, but it still survives in some of the world's poorest countries. India seemed to be on the verge of eliminating polio last year, when it reported just 66 cases of the disease, down from 1600 in 2002. This year, however, things have gone horribly wrong with India's polio elimination campaign; 325 cases have been reported already, and at least 23 of them have been fatal. What's caught people's attention is that 70% of those infected with polio this year are Muslim, even though Muslims account for only 13% of India's population. What's even stranger, and frightening, is the reason: some Muslims believe that the polio drops are part of a conspiracy to sterilize their children, and are refusing to let them be vaccinated.
This year's polio outbreak has been concentrated in India's largest state, Uttar Pradesh, home to over 170 million people. It is here, say health workers, that a few ultraconservative Muslim clerics have spread a myth that the polio vaccine is part of an underhanded campaign to sterilize Muslim children and lower the Muslim birth rate. Dr Hamid Jafari, the regional advisor for the World Health Organization (WHO) on polio eradication, says that the majority of Uttar Pradesh's Muslims have got their children vaccinated, but, "in certain places, fatwas have been issued against the vaccine." In those places, Muslims have stopped state health workers from entering their houses and administering the polio vaccine, which is administered orally, to their children.
Dr. Jafari adds that paranoia is not the only reason for the hostility to the polio drops. Uttar Pradesh is notorious for being one of the worst-administered regions of India, and most of the state has appallingly bad hospitals and health services. Muslims, who are among the poorest of Indians, bear the brunt of this collapse in the state's health infrastructure. Dr Jafari says: "There's a sense of frustration among many Muslims: they tell the health workers, we've never seen anyone coming to take care of us, why are you coming just to give us polio drops?"