My country, Ethiopia, is large with a very diverse population and geography. The region of Afar, which is predominantly Muslim, particularly struggles to immunize its children. In some of the most remote communities, as few as 12 percent of children have received all of their basic vaccines. That is a big gap from the 94 percent who have been vaccinated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city.
Parents need to be encouraged to bring their children to health workers for their shots. In some cases, it’s a question of lack of information or poor education, but in Afar it is often more complex. Some parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children due to fear of vaccines.
A call for religious leaders
I work closely with the Government of Ethiopia to improve access to vaccines, including helping with the introduction of those that protect against rotavirus and meningitis A, and with an emergency campaign last year to address an outbreak of polio. But I also work with Islamic and Christian religious leaders who are highly trusted and influential in their communities. I am helping them take a leading role in making sure children are protected from diseases that can make them ill, disable them, or even kill them.
In October, I worked with Afar’s regional health bureau and the regional Islamic Affairs office to gather 40 Islamic leaders at a workshop. We talked about the importance of childhood immunization and firmed up plans to work together to make sure more children are immunized.
A duty to protect children
It was a powerful moment for me and for the assembled sheiks to hear the highly respected Islamic scholar and head of the regional Islamic Affairs office, Sheik Mussa Mohammed, read from the book, The Reflection of Islam in the Quran on Child Care and Protection, which calls on all Muslims as their religious duty to protect children from any illness, including vaccine-preventable diseases.
One sheik responded by saying, “You have the messages and we have the people. Together we can reach the community with the messages that will protect our children from illness and death.”
Continuing the momentum
I was most moved and encouraged to hear Sheik Mussa promise to ensure momentum continues. He has called for further training for imams from mosques of the region. Already two orientation workshops are scheduled for January, and we’ve signed up more than a hundred imams.
Imams will also deliver messages about vaccines twice a month during Friday religious prayers. Guest preachers will travel to different mosques to encourage the imams in the mosques and give them on-the-job training. Everyone involved will take shared responsibility for supervising the program, and twice a year they will review progress and discuss challenges. For the first time, these commitments are long-term—and owned by the Islamic community itself.
Above all, says Sheik Mussa, ”We have to prove that working with Islamic leaders will work.” The proof, of course, will come when we see the numbers of children immunized increase in Afar, but the transformative power of engaging religious and community leaders in our efforts to save childrens’ lives is very much alive here in Ethiopia.