Health workers offering measles-rubella vaccine threatened with machetes by parents in some parts of Indonesia

Photo for illustration purpose only.
Photo for illustration purpose only.

The Indonesian government is currently undertaking a massive nationwide drive to administer the measles-rubella (MR) vaccine to 32 million children across the archipelago, but paranoia over non-halal components in the vaccine has proven to be a huge impediment to their efforts — according to officials they’ve only managed to meet about 43% of their target as of this week when they were scheduled to have already achieved their goal of 95% by this point.

The terrifying depths of anti-vaccine paranoia and fears in certain parts of Indonesia was illustrated yesterday with disturbing anecdotes from Deputy Presidential Chief of Staff Yanuar Nugroho, who said that health workers administering vaccines in some areas of the country had actually been threatened with physical violence.

“Some were threatened with machetes because parents said, ‘I don’t want this, because this is unclean,’” Yanuar told reporters in Jakarta yesterday as quoted by Tempo.

Yanuar said one such incident took place in Sulawesi’s Gorontalo province. He said six health workers who were giving out MR vaccines to villagers on Torosiaje Island were threatened sharply by locals.

“The parents of the children who they wanted to immunize carried machetes, locked their homes and threatened to attack the officers who were giving the injections,” Yanuar said.

The senior palace official also said that health workers in the city of Banjarmasin, South Kalimantan, had reported actually having to dispose of their vaccines after being threatened by local residents. In another incident, parents in a village in the Tanah Datar regency of West Sumatra told local officials that they did not accept the immunizations and threatened health workers and officials trying to vaccinate their children, even making them sign a letter of apology.

What could explain such fear over the vaccine? Even before the government’s latest immunization drive, there had been an increase in anti-vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories, but those concerns were exasperated when the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country’s highest Islamic clerical body, raised concerns about the MR vaccine. MUI demanded 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 MUI finally giving its followers the green light, many throughout the country are obviously still more afraid of letting their children be injected with something containing trace amount of pig enzymes than the dangers of measles and rubella, which can cause serious health complications and death in children. Even more devastating, women who contract the disease during pregnancy can experience miscarriages or have their fetuses develop debilitating birth defects.

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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