Only 7% of measles-rubella vaccine target reached in Aceh due to haram concerns, doctors warn of ‘MR tsunami’

Child in Indonesia receiving an immunization vaccine. Photo: AFP

The Indonesian government is still undertaking a massive nationwide drive to administer the measles-rubella vaccine to millions of children across the archipelago, but concerns over non-halal components in the vaccine have proven to be a huge impediment to their efforts, particularly in the ultra-conservative province of Aceh where the government has only reached around 7% of their target.

“At present, the province of Aceh has the lowest (MR immunization) coverage, only 7%. We expected 90% coverage. For MR vaccines in Aceh, there are 1.5 million who must be vaccinated, but (so far) only about 100,000 children have been treated,” Dr. Aslinar,  secretary of the Indonesian Pediatrician Association’s Aceh Branch, told reporters on Tuesday as quoted by Detik.

The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s highest Islamic clerical body, first raised concerns about the MR vaccine used in the government’s current immunization drive, demanding that they be allowed to test it to ascertain its halal status and initially instructing its followers to wait until their testing had been completed before getting the vaccine.

After MUI finally received a sample of the vaccine, they announced that it actually did contain trace amounts of pork byproducts (in the gelatin used to stabilize the compound) but also issued a fatwa three weeks ago declaring it was acceptable to use the vaccine for now due to medical urgency and a lack of a halal alternative.

 

Despite the fatwa, a large number of Muslim Indonesians still appear to be reluctant to let their children receive the vaccine, with immunization rates in numerous parts of the country still dangerously low. But nowhere are they lower than in Aceh, the only region of Indonesia given special authority to implement sharia-based law.

A large reason for that is that Aceh’s acting governor Nova Iriansyah, previously commanded that the MR vaccine program be delayed due to the haram concerns, but has yet to order it be fully re-implemented even following MUI’s fatwa saying the vaccine was acceptable.

 

Doctors are warning that the low immunizations rate in Aceh is creating a potential crisis situation as the number of measles and rubella cases in the province are already on the rise, with one pediatrician telling BBC Indonesia that the region could face a “MR tsunami”. The disease can be particularly devastating for pregnant women who contract measles as this can lead to miscarriages or giving their fetuses congenital rubella syndrome, which can cause birth defects including hearing loss, cataracts and heart problems.

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