Polio leads to infertelity: a myth

Every few weeks, we come across articles in the newspaper that locals or the tribal elders not allowing polio vaccination in their area because people think it will render their kids infertile. Then there are efforts from government side to educate the people that it is just a myth but the myth isn’t getting destroyed. From Guardian

Now religious scholars have joined the campaign to dismantle the myths and battle the resurgence of polio. A campaign led by National Research and Development Foundation (NRDF) in partnership with Unicef has brought together more than 5,000 of them, working on provincial and district levels, to tackle the issue. The group comprises of scholars belonging to the Deobandi sect, a school of thought followed by the majority of population in the tribal belt.

In Fata, clerics helped resolve 8,120 vaccine refusal cases during a week-long campaign in March this year. Another 160 religious scholars from Swat have issued a Fatwa in favour of the vaccinations. A campaign, starting this month, will be led by Shia scholars as it expands to the Parachinar valley, where the majority of the population are Shia Muslims.

Now if “polio drops leads to infertility” was a Taliban ploy, then we would not need to convince Shias as they are arch enemies of Taliban and would not have bought Taliban ploy hook, line and sinker. It doesn’t help the case that CIA used fake polio campaign to hunt for Osama Bin Laden leading to some polio administering NGOs to fly their staff outside Pakistan immediately as they would’ve been threatened.

But resistance to polio has been in the region even before Taliban took over. Where did the myth that it leads to infertility arrive. I came across this passage in the book Poor Economics talking about similar resistance to polio drops in India which gives some background:

India had had a long history with family planning, starting in the mid-1960s. In 1971, the state of Kerala experimented with mobile sterilization services, the “sterilization camps” approach that was to be the cornerstone of Sanjay Gandhi’s plan during the Emergency. Although most politicians before him had identified population control as an important issue, Sanjay Gandhi brought to the problem both an unprecedented level of enthusiasm and the ability (and willingness) to twist as many arms as necessary to implement his chosen policies.

In April 1976, the Indian Cabinet approved a formal statement of national population policy that called for a number of measures to encourage family planning, notably, large financial incentives for those who agreed to be sterilized (such as a month’s wages or priority on a housing list), and more frighteningly, authorization for each state to develop compulsory sterilization laws (for, say, everyone with more than two children). Although only one state proposed such a law (and that law was never approved), states were explicitly pressured to set sterilization quotas and fulfill them, and all but three states “voluntarily” chose targets greater than what was proposed by the central government: The targets totaled 8.6 million sterilizations “for 1976–1977.

Once laid out, the quotas were not taken lightly. The chief of the Uttar Pradesh bureaucracy wrote by telegraph to his principal field subordinates: “Inform everybody that failure to achieve monthly targets will not only result in the stoppage of salaries but also suspension and severest penalties. Galvanise entire administrative machinery forthwith repeat forthwith and continue to report daily progress by crash wireless to me and secretary to Chief Minister.” Every government employee, down to the village level, and not excluding railway inspectors and school teachers, was supposed to know the local target. Parents of schoolchildren were visited by teachers, who told them that in the future, their children may be denied enrollment in school if they did not agree to get sterilized. People traveling by train without a ticket—a widely accepted practice among the poor until then—were handed heavy fines unless they chose sterilization. Not surprisingly, the pressure occasionally went much further. In Uttawar, a Muslim village near the capital city of Delhi, all male villagers were rounded up one night by the police, sent to the police stations on bogus charges, and sent from there to be sterilized.

The policy appears to have achieved its immediate target, although the incentives probably also led to some overreporting in the number of actual sterilizations. In 1976–1977, 8.25 million people were reportedly sterilized, 6.5 million of them during just the period July–December 1976. By the end of 1976, 21 percent of Indian couples were sterilized. But the violations of civil liberties that were an integral part of the implementation of the program were widely resented, and when in 1977, India finally held elections, discussions of the sterilization policy were a key part of the debate, as captured most memorably by the slogan “Indira hatao, indiri bachao (Get rid of Indira and save your penis).” It is widely believed that Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 elections was in part driven by popular hatred for this program. The new government immediately reversed the policy.

In one of those ironic twists in which historians delight, it is not inconceivable that in the longer term, Sanjay Gandhi actually contributed to the faster growth of India’s population. Tainted by the emergency, family-planning policies in India retreated into the shadows and in the shadows they have remained—some states, such as Rajasthan, do continue to promote sterilization on a voluntary basis, but no one except the health bureaucracy seems to have any interest in it. In the meantime, however, generalized suspicion of the motivations of the state seems to be one of the most durable residues of the Emergency; for example, one still routinely hears of people in slums and villages refusing pulse polio drops because they believe it is a way to secretly sterilize children.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s