PESHAWAR, Nov 11: Officials at the Fata Directorate of Health has opposed the hiring of the service of religious leaders for promotion of iodised salt in tribal area fearing certain complications, it is learnt.
“Keeping in view the ulema’s involvement to scale up awareness of anti-polio vaccination, officials have opposed the idea to engage clerics to promote iodised salt in four tribal agencies,” an official told Dawn on Sunday.
The official said the idea under which ulema would ask their followers in mosques in favour of using iodised salt was not workable and therefore, it was suggested to involve schoolteachers in the campaign.
He said the Unicef’s plan to run campaign in Orakzai, Bajaur, Khyber and Mohmand agencies by recruiting prayers leaders and clerics was opposed in two meetings with the Fata Directorate of Health officials in view of the past experiences, especially those of anti-polio vaccination campaigns.
The official said an NGO was already running the said project in parts of Fata.
According to him, the argument for disapproval of the plan was failure of anti-polio campaigns.
“The role of ulema in public awareness can not be denied but their involvement in every campaign entailed complications. The plan was opposed because it would be very difficult to pay to every mullah,” he said.
Sources said assigning any role to clerics in donor-sponsored health advocacy projects, including the one meant for promotion of use of iodine to contain goiter, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata had turned out to be a futile exercise and counterproductive.Background interviews with health department’s officials and representatives of donor agencies showed that they were unanimous that employing religious leaders to advocate for oral polio vaccine coupled with haphazard mobilisation drive by the departments and NGOs had caused a setback instead of creating public awareness.
“Overemphasis on polio campaign by the government and using banners and involvement of ulema for the purpose raises the people’s doubts about it. It has led to negative fallout,” said an official at the Fata Directorate of Health.
He claimed that in some areas, clerics were paid to support anti-polio vaccines in their sermons that created complications for the relevant authorities, adding that brisk campaigns by the donors and government also created problems.
“A prayer leader in Frontier Region, Bannu began speeches against polio drops when he heard that another cleric in the same area was paid for supporting vaccination,” said the official, who supervised vaccination drive in the area adjacent to North Waziristan Agency.
Unicef, which supports government’s polio mobilisation campaigns, has been spending millions of rupees on health mobilisation programmes in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Fata. It has sponsored advocacy campaign against polio and other diseases through its partners, who subsequently engaged ulema.
Unicef media specialist Azmat Abbas, however, denied that his organisation or its partners were paying clerics for supporting health mobilisation campaign in the region.
“Unicef and its implementing partners do not pay salary or professional fee to religious leaders engaged in the fight against polio. Expenses for campaign activities are covered appropriately,” he said in a statement.
National Development and Research Foundation, the UN agency partner in Peshawar, claimed to have involved around 7,000 ulema and clerics in the province to sensitise parents to give anti-polio drops to their children.
Of late, Unicef announced to terminate its contract with NRDF from Nov 15 despite being due on Dec 31. The contract signed in Nov 2009 was first extended and then terminated, meant that Unicef had doled out Rs110 million.
Despite running extensive campaigns, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is home to around 20,000 immunisation refusal cases annually. However, no such data is available for Fata.
An official asked: “If the involvement of ulema is so good for health promotion, then why the contract with them for polio immunisation ended?” This, he said, was the main argument of the health department with Unicef.
When contacted, NDRF coordinator Tahseenullah said his organisation paid only to those ulema, who did field work. He added that mostly, ulema voluntarily contributed to campaigns against polio because they regarded it as national cause to eradicate polio.