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Right To Education Versus Right To Life

Kerala’s plan to fight anti-vaccine campaign by denying school admissions creates a flutter

Kerala has drawn out its much awaited health policy and even before the ink had dried on the draft, it has already started ruffling a few feathers across the state.

This is due to one clause which calls upon the state to deny admission to a child at any school if he or she fails to produce a vaccination card against his or her name that is becoming a subject of heated debate.

Not just in government schools, but the policy, the first of its kind in the country, calls upon on all schools across the state, from those which follow the state syllabus to those in the CBSE and ICSE streams, aided or fully private, to fall in line.

The state government though is yet to pass any legislation around the recommendation, has said that it would implement the policy as and when needed.

“The expert panel which has chalked out the health policy has clearly recommended that government take such a step because every year the state is struggling to ensure a near total vaccination for the children in certain areas. So the government might have to take such a drastic step and it will be done in consultation with the education department,’’ Health Minister KK Shailaja told media persons this week.

The certain areas that the Minister had mentioned are two districts in northern Kerala, Kozhikode and Malappuram.

While most of the other parts of the state have touched above 95% in terms of vaccination covered, Malappuram and Kozhikode still lag behind in the early eighties.

According to the figures available with the National Centre for Biotechnology Information, in 2016 alone 553 cases of diphtheria have been reported across 11 districts of Kerala. Out of this 92% occurred in three districts – Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kannur.

Malappuram alone had 12.5 lakh children to be vaccinated in December 2017 of which around 82% had been done until last week.

In this area alone, 79% of diphtheria cases were reported among children below the age of 10, which medical experts say calls for action on a war footing. In 2016 Malappuram alone saw 6 diphtheria deaths.

Dr KP Aravindan who had been the convener of the team that chalked out the new health policy minces no words in explaining why the team decided to crack the whip.

“The fact that some of the most dangerous diseases like diphtheria which has been long thought of as eradicated have returned in these districts should be read closely with the fall in immunisation rate. This is the direct effect of a very active anti-vaccination campaign. Now our new policy should be understood in this light. When you have such a tremendous misinformation campaign unleashed both online and offline against vaccination, it is certainly the responsibility of the government to take a strong defensive measure,’’ Dr Aravindan told The Lede.

Aravindan has also added that the policy’s aim is not to deny the right to education for any child. But during admission, it would become mandatory for the parent to present the vaccination record of the child and if not vaccinated, a valid reason would need to be put forth.

“Awareness campaigns alone cannot fight this issue, although we need to step up on that front too. That is because the fear psychosis that the anti-vaccination campaign has managed to create is such that some parents won’t even think about it. Now this policy will also help us to keep a clear surveillance on who is taking the shots and who is not and how we can make them aware,’’ added Aravindan.

Medical Fraternity Welcomes The Move

Shimna Azeez is the medical officer in charge of immunisation in Malappuram and knows well Malappuram’s dismal immunisation story.

Dismal it had been for the past few years – breaking the belief among the Muslim majority local population that vaccinations were harmful, was in itself a very painful task.

“We are people who are supposed to make this drive happen in the least possible time. But rather than doing the actual vaccination we have no option but to spend days trying to make the local population unlearn the myths that have learned about vaccines. I think this policy will certainly give a headstart for the campaign in a big way,’’ Azeez told The Lede.

Azeez who had been spearheading the campaign over social media even vaccinated both her children live on Facebook to get the trust factor up.

Last year she even vaccinated herself before a huge local population in a school in Kondotty in Malappuarm before suspicious parents agreed to vaccinate their children.

It was the Measles-Rubella (MR) vaccination drive last year that saw things take an ugly turn in Malappuram. Miscreants broke the hand of a nurse who was engaged in vaccinating children in a school in last November.

While myths are another story, MR had a politico-religious connotation too. A section of the Muslim population believed that MR stood for Modi-RSS and that the vaccine was created with American help to leave the community infertile.

This is where one simple message of the anti-vaccine campaigners had its effect and doctors like Azeez hope that the policy could bring the much needed radical change in thought.

There are other doctors who think the government should have made this mandatory a long time ago.

“It is a mandatory thing in a number of developed countries across the world even in Muslim countries. We are wasting so much of our resources and manpower in achieving this because of which lot of other critical areas in the healthcare suffer. This should come automatically and I strongly feel that once you say that you need this for school admissions, even doubting parents will fall in line,’’ Dr N Sulphi, State Secretary of Indian Medical Association told The Lede.

Will It Work On Ground?

While the medical fraternity calls it mandatory, The Lede decided to reach out to some of the parents in Malappuram and Kozhikode to determine their responses. What we found was that far from changing their minds, it has only created more doubts.

VN Ahmed Kutty (name changed) of Tirur in Malappuram has two boys aged 3 and 9. Both of them are yet to be vaccinated. The businessman had refused to vaccinate his kids last time too when health workers came calling and says he still won’t do it even if the younger one does not get admission in a school.

“Education is important but not at the cost of life. Children have died taking these injections. I am not going to put my kids’ life in danger. These health workers will say all such things and go their way. They have nothing to lose,’’ Kutty told The Lede.

Around 75 kilolmeters away in Koyilandi in Kozhikode Abdul Jabbar says he is a confused man. He has three kids and the youngest is a five-month-old girl.

“I am not fully against vaccination. But see, rather than making such a strict rule, why can’t the government take steps to stop the anti-vaccination campaign if it is full of lies as the government claims. Which parent will take a risk with the life of their little one after we hear about all these dangers of vaccination?’’ asks Jabbar.

It is here that perhaps the LDF government in Kerala is falling short. Even as they bring in the new policy, they government has shown no intention of bringing to book the anti-vaccine campaigners, some of them who are well known faces in the state.

The rural, little educated Muslim population of Malappuram and Kozhikode has always been easy prey for the anti-vaccination campaign led by a few naturopathy experts and quacks who claim to be traditional health experts. When a bit of religion is also thrown in, the local population gets easily swayed.

“I don’t think there can be any substitute to awareness on this issue. You cannot mix the right to education with the issue of immunisation. Although we are all pro-vaccination people we cannot equate that to the right to education. By asking for a vaccination as pre-requisite for admission, you are doing only that,’’ noted education reformist M Shajar Khan told The Lede.

The Muslim Education Society (MES) is one of the leading bodies among the minority community that runs educational institutions across Kerala. MES also runs more than 60 schools in the state catering to both the state and CBSE syllabi. The MES has welcomed the government’s move saying the policy need not be seen as stepping upon the child’s right to education.

“Why should we blindly oppose this move? This is only done for our safety, the safety of our children and this need not be mixed with the right to education. See even when you go for Haj pilgrimage such vaccinations are mandatory. Nobody complains then. I think it is more of ignorance which is playing the devil here and causing people to oppose it,’’ Prof POJ Lebba, General Secretary, MES told The Lede.

Once government brings in the new policy, the acid test will certainly be in Malappuram and Kozhikode where a strong vaccination drive over the next few years would be crucial if the state is to completely eradicate once forgotten diseases like diphtheria. Right to education is top priority but so is the right to life.

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