Another diphtheria death that was reported from Malappuram in Kerala is now a cause for concern among district health officials. 15-year-old Muhammed Afsal, a class IX student who was admitted to the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital (KMCH), died of the disease on Wednesday.
Earlier this month, Ameen, another 15-year old, too succumbed to medical complications arising from having contracted this wholly preventable illness. An 11-year-old boy who has exhibited symptoms of diphtheria is currently undergoing treatment at KMCH.
According to recent reports, 23,912 out of 342,657 children in Malappuram below the age of five have not been immunized even once in their lifespan. A report in The Hindu states that more than one out of every three children aged between 5 and 16 have never been vaccinated in the district.
While no cases of diphtheria were reported from the district in 2013 and 2014, two kids died of the same in September 2015. The reason, health officials claim, is the lack of immunization that is reportedly encouraged by certain Muslim groups who are against vaccination.
A health official from Malappuram who sought anonymity told The News Minute that campaigns against vaccination by a few religious leaders are a common occurrence in Malappuram. “I have heard some of them preaching against vaccinations. They say taking immunization is against the will of God,” says the officer.
Dr V Ummer Farooq, Malappuram District Medical Officer, however denies the claim that religious organisations are against vaccination, though he does admit that certain groups do oppose the immunization programme. “Some groups do campaign against administering vaccines to children in the district. But I don’t think there is a religious angle to it,” he opines.
He also agrees that it is indeed the lack of immunization that has allowed this dreadful disease to make a comeback in the district and yet there are families who are reluctant to let their children be vaccinated.
Dr G Sunil Kumar, Additional Director of Family Welfare and State Programme Manager of the National Health Mission, reveals that the boy who died on Wednesday had not been vaccinated even once during childhood.
"As for reported resistance from within the Muslim community, on-ground negative propaganda is less than 4 to 5%, wherein there is an effort to try and convince the volunteers themselves against the need to administer vaccines to infants. But then this seems to be more like the handiwork of antisocial elements rather than the community per se,” he feels.
He also pointed out cases where the absence of the decision-makers from home i.e. the male head of the family or the child’s father, with most of them working abroad, also makes the family reluctant to say yes to vaccination.
“We also have to deal with cases where relatives interfere and say none in the family have ever had any such diseases despite not being vaccinated and so they don't intend to start now,” Sunil rues.
Farooq affirms that vaccination is the only solution to beat diphtheria. “On our part, we work for awareness among the masses incorporating schools, madarassas and other local institutions.”
To counter such obstinacy, Sunil asserts, teams of doctors have been actively conducting house-to-house visits, awareness camps, special classes for madarassa teachers with the support of the district administration and other local bodies.
“In this specific instance, we have collected smears of all those who came in contact with the deceased child, administered Td vaccine to all in the age group of 10-16 in the surrounding areas and in the nearby schools, so that in case, any of them do contract the disease, it would prove self-limiting and not end on a fatal note,” he elaborates.
State Education Minister C. Raveendranath informed the media on Wednesday that the government also plans to conduct a survey in government schools with the help of local bodies and the health department to find out how many students have actually been vaccinated under the state immunization programme.