Aceh governor finally allows measles-rubella vaccine program to resume after haram scare

Child in Indonesia receiving an immunization vaccine. Photo: AFP

The government’s much-delayed measles-rubella (MR) vaccine drive now has the full backing of provincial administrations throughout the country — the last hold out being the ultra-conservative province of Aceh — though it remains to be seen if the backing of the regional governments will be able to overcome religious-based anti-vaccine paranoia.

In August, Aceh’s acting governor, Nova Iriansyah (who took over the role after former governor Irwandi Yusuf  was arrested on corruption charges in July) commanded that the MR vaccine program be delayed in the province due to fears that it contained pork byproducts, which would make it haram (forbidden) for consumption by Muslims. Even after the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) issued a fatwa (religious edict) allowing the consumption of the vaccine due to a lack of a halal (permissible for consumption) alternative, Nova said that he would continue to delay the program until their own local Islamic clerical body, the Ulama Consultative Assembly of Aceh (MPU), issued a ruling on the MR vaccine.

After more than a month of delay, the Aceh administration, MPU and MUI finally all agreed yesterday that the MR vaccine drive had to resume due to the severe risks posed by the disease.

“It’s like if we’re in an emergency, we’re starved and moments from death, even the carcass of a pig is permissible [to consume] until we’re out of that emergency,” MPU Chairman Muslim Ibrahim told reporters yesterday, as quoted by BBC Indonesia.

However, it doesn’t look like the Aceh administration or the MPU will be doing any extra work to promote the MR vaccine.

“The MR vaccine drive will be resumed, but we will not force parents who don’t want their children vaccinated. This is just for those parents who are willing,” Aceh administration spokesperson Wiratmadinata said.

The announcement coincided with MUI chairman and President Joko Widodo’s 2019 election running mate Ma’ruf Amin’s visit to Aceh yesterday. On Tuesday, the Islamic scholar said the MR vaccine should be wajib (an Islamic term for something that is mandatory to perform/consume and sinful if neglected) for children in the country.

According to government officials, only 43 percent of the targeted 32 million children have been given the MR vaccine as of last week, far below the government’s target of having 95 percent achieved by that point. Officials say health workers around Indonesia have even been threatened with physical violence by unwilling parents, some of whom carried machetes.

Doctors have warned that areas of the country like Aceh, which has only had 7% of children targeted by the latest vaccination drive immunized, could experience an “MR tsunami”. The government is already warning that if the immunization program fails, the country could soon face an epidemic of the disease.

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