INDONESIA is at heightened risk of an outbreak of measles and rubella after Islamic authorities declared vaccination ‘haram’ (forbidden) due to its pork gelatine content.
The Health Ministry said its World Health Organisation-backed immunisation programme held since last year had reached 95 percent coverage in the highly-populated central island of Java, dropping measels and rubella cases by more than 90 percent, but the jabs only reached eight percent of children in provinces like Aceh.
The declining rates of injections, as a result of millions of parents forgoing the vaccine in recent months, has alarmed the health officials who say there could be a fresh wave of measels and miscarriages and birth defects resulting from rubella infections during pregnancy, according to Science.
Just before the ministry intensified its immunisation drive to islands and provinces outside Java in August, the Indonesian Ulama Council (MUI) of the Riau Islands, an Islamic body that oversees religious affairs in the province, raised concerns that a new vaccine used was not certified halal by the central MUI body, the highest authority on religion in the country.
The concern led to the requests by the MUI to postpone the vaccinations and the issue became contentious with parents across the country showing increased distrust on the injections as pig components were used in its manufacturing.
Produced by the Serum Institute of India in Mumbai, the MR vaccine was adopted by the Indonesian ministry to immunise 67 million children aged between nine months and 15 years.
But the MR vaccine contained Trypsin, an enzyme which helps separate the cells which the vaccine viruses are grown from their glass container. The gelatine extracted from pig skin protects the vaccine viruses as they are freeze-dried.
In many other Muslim countries, clerics concluded that the gelatine in the vaccines was permissible as it had been purified in accordance with an Islamic legal concept called istihalah.
Despite the health ministry’s calls to issue a fatwa to declare the vaccine halal, the MUI did the reverse by declaring it haram based it the vaccine’s porcine-based ingredients.
However, the MUI had not called for an end for the vaccination campaign, telling parents to have their children vaccinated for public health reasons – they simply wanted a halal vaccine, even though there were none readily available.
Bio Farma, Indonesia’s state-owned company has noted that non-porcine vaccine stabilisers exist but clinical trials on the replacement could take six to 10 years.
In the meantime, however Art Reingold, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says “many will be made ill and some may die avoidable deaths.”