PIDIE, KOMPAS.com - Children in school uniforms and toddlers with their parents lined up Monday, Nov. 28, for polio vaccinations in the Sigli town square on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra, after four children were found infected with the highly contagious disease that was declared eliminated in the country less than a decade ago.
The virus was first detected in October in a 7-year-old boy suffering from partial paralysis in the province of Aceh near Sigli, and since then three other cases have been detected, prompting the mass immunization and information drive.
Officials say that polio immunization rates in the conservative province are well behind the rest of the country, with efforts hampered by widespread disinformation the vaccine is incompatible with religious beliefs, among other things. The government has also been prioritizing Covid-19 vaccinations since they became available.
The campaign that started Monday aims to vaccinate some 1.2 million children in the province, said Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the Health Ministry's director general for disease control and prevention.
"There is no cure for polio, the only treatment is prevention and the tool for prevention is vaccination," Maxi said, adding that the child is still able to walk, albeit with a limp.
With some 275 million people, Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous, and the largest Muslim-majority nation.
Aceh is particularly conservative and is Indonesia's only province allowed to practice Shariah, which was a concession made by the national government in 2006 to end a war with separatists.
False rumors that the polio vaccine contains pork or alcohol, prohibited according to Muslim beliefs, have proliferated, especially in rural areas, complicating vaccination efforts, said the head of the Aceh Health Office, Hanif, who only goes by one name like many Indonesians.
"We cannot work alone, we need support from all parties, including religious leaders, so that people understand the importance of immunization," said Hanif.