Halal vaccines key to wiping out polio threat, says expert

A halal vaccine could be one approach to overcoming the suspicion of vaccination teams in countries such as Pakistan

Halal vaccines could prove critical in helping to persuade Muslim communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan to immunise their children against the paralysing poliovirus, a leading virologist has said.

Professor John Oxford, of Queen Mary University, London, said sustained vaccination drives are needed to tackle hidden cases of polio and fully eradicate the disease, which has been wiped out in all but three countries. For every clinical case of polio, there are at least 200 more children infected with the virus who may infect others, he said.

“We all of us have been too complacent with polio,” Oxford told Philanthropy Age. “There is never just one case. A crippled child in northern Afghanistan might escape notice, and then 200 others are infected and they infect 200 [other children]. Suddenly you could have a big outbreak, much quicker than Ebola.”

Sustained vaccination drives have all but eliminated the virus, though it remains endemic in three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. New cases of the disease have also re-emerged in Syria and Iraq.

Polio vaccination campaigns in Pakistan have come under attack from Taliban militant groups distrustful of the vaccines’ provenance and intentions behind large-scale immunisation drives. A halal vaccine could be one approach to overcoming this suspicion, said Oxford.

“I think a halal vaccine would be useful anywhere,” he said. “But particularly in areas where there is religious sensitivity such as northern Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Syria.”

The Federation of Islamic Medical Associations (FIMA) reported in October that the remaining 1 per cent of global polio cases exist in Muslim-majority countries. If started tomorrow, it would take around 5 years to develop a halal polio vaccine, Oxford said.

While there is no one definition of what makes a vaccine halal, there is consensus that it should not be developed using animals slaughtered in a non-Sharia compliant manner or using animals that are forbidden.

The last vaccinations against the disease, which attacks the nervous system, are almost 60 years old, noted Oxford.

Vaccination campaigns need to continue for at least 5 years after the last reported case, to ensure the elimination of the disease from the community.

At the start of November, the number of polio cases in Pakistan had spiked to 235 in 2014, according to reports from the country’s National Institute of Health. In Afghanistan and Nigeria, the polio caseload remains much lower, at 12 and 6 respectively according to figures from the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.