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Religion Blamed For Parents' Refusals To Vaccinate Kids In Kazakhstan


Around 10,000 children across Kazakhstan are denied vaccinations, due to religious beliefs, authorities say. (file photo)

Earlier this month, at a tense town-hall-style meeting in a western region of Kazakhstan regarded as a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism, physicians, religious leaders, and local government officials debated the fate of the next generation.

Parents, some of them recalcitrant skeptics, were being urged to allow the vaccination of their children against life-threatening diseases.

"In one of the hadiths, our Prophet said that in case of illness, cumin should be used," one devout parent, Murat Zhumanbetov, recalled. "I have five children. They don't know what injections are. If they get sick, I treat them with cumin and honey."

The town-hall meeting was tense, with parents citing Kazakh cases of tainted vaccines in the past.
The town-hall meeting was tense, with parents citing Kazakh cases of tainted vaccines in the past.

Kazakh officials complain that a growing number of parents are refusing to inoculate their children based on such religious objections.

Around 10,000 children across Kazakhstan are denied vaccinations, authorities say, about one-fourth of them residents of the region of Aqtobe, where fundamentalists are said to be concentrated.

In Zhumanbetov's home district of Mughalzhar alone, local officials say 451 residents practice a "destructive" form of Islam and there are 353 unvaccinated children.

"They think vaccines are made with cell fragments of cells of haram animals," Amanzhol Adaev, a local doctor, told RFE/RL, using the Koranic word for forbidden. "I tell them that I have been working as a doctor for half a century, vaccinated their grandfathers, parents, and themselves, and that's why they have grown up healthily."

Imam Tolebi Ospanov dismissed the idea that vaccinations are prohibited in Islam.
Imam Tolebi Ospanov dismissed the idea that vaccinations are prohibited in Islam.

The regional representative of the state-sanctioned spiritual administration of Muslims, Imam Tolebi Ospanov, dismissed the idea that vaccinations are prohibited in Islam and pointed out that Saudi Arabia requires visitors for the annual hajj pilgrimage to be vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis.

At the town-hall meeting, parents also attributed health risks to vaccines and cited Kazakh cases of tainted vaccines in the past. A young woman who did not identify herself claimed her son, born in 2005, fell ill for seven months after being administered a "low-quality" BCG vaccine, which is primarily used against tuberculosis.

That year, more than 1,000 infants reportedly suffered complications in several regions of Kazakhstan after being inoculated with the BCG vaccine. Many of the affected newborns had to undergo surgery and long treatment.

And two years ago, more than 100 students fell ill after inoculation in a nationwide measles-vaccination campaign for teenagers.

But the deputy head of Aqtobe regional health department, Svetlana Esenamanova, rejected doubts about the quality of the vaccines currently used in Kazakhstan as "inappropriate."

Esenamanova told RFE/RL that the vaccines used against infectious childhood diseases are properly transported and stored, and that there are "no grounds for worrying" over their composition.

The regional consumer-rights agency in Aqtobe suggested that parents' refusal to have their children vaccinated is a phenomenon that took off in 2009. In a written statement, it said the parents involved were followers of "destructive religious movements" in 82 percent of the cases.

In the absence of any outbreak and thanks to high vaccination levels in the region, the phenomenon does not appear to have led to any increases in infant mortality or disability rates, the agency added.

It also insisted that vaccination remains the most reliable method for battling pneumonia, meningitis, tetanus, rabies, and other infections.

Kazakhstan is an ethnically diverse country of around 18 million people where Islam, and indeed religion, was officially discouraged under Soviet rule for much of the 20th century.

Written by Antoine Blua based on reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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