In Indonesia, Rumors Imperil Anti-Polio Bid

Relatives assist Fauziah, 4, who was partially paralyzed by a suspected bout of polio. At least 226 Indonesians have been infected this year.
Relatives assist Fauziah, 4, who was partially paralyzed by a suspected bout of polio. At least 226 Indonesians have been infected this year. (By Dita Alangkara -- Associated Press)
By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 27, 2005

DEPOK, Indonesia -- As a longtime health volunteer in the narrow alleys of her hillside neighborhood, Ebon Sunarti has focused on corralling other women into the local clinic so their toddlers could be vaccinated against a range of childhood diseases.

But when polio broke out in her province this year and the government launched a regional campaign to immunize all children under 5, this tough-minded mother held her own 3-year-old daughter back after seeing spurious television reports that the vaccine had made many youngsters sick, even killing a few.

"This is my mother's heart. I have to be so careful," explained Sunarti, 35, her brown eyes warm but adamant.

With polio now spreading faster in Indonesia than anywhere else, U.N. health experts and local officials are struggling to counter rumors that the vaccine is harmful, and to contain the outbreak before the coming rainy season turns it into a full-blown epidemic.

The next test comes Tuesday when Indonesia plans to immunize 24 million children under 5. If the nationwide drive succeeds, it could turn back polio at its farthest frontier since the disease erupted in Nigeria two years ago. But if it fails, international health experts warn, the outbreak could spill over Indonesia's borders to other East Asian countries, dealing a setback to global efforts to eradicate the illness.

"What we have now is a looming crisis," said David Hipgrave, UNICEF's chief for health and nutrition in Indonesia.

The country had been polio-free for a decade until a traveler from the Middle East brought it to Indonesia's main island of Java early this year. The disease has now spread from the Java mountains to the nearby island of Sumatra and north to the capital, Jakarta, infecting at least 226 people.

In May, Indonesia launched a drive to vaccinate children in Jakarta and two neighboring provinces, dispatching health workers into jungles, slums and remote ridgeline villages. The effort exceeded expectations, with more than 6.5 million immunized.

But accounts of four children who died shortly afterward were reported at length in the national media. Though the World Health Organization determined that the deaths were unrelated to the vaccine, Indonesian health officials initially did little to debunk the rumors. So in a second round of vaccinations in June, intended to give the same children another crucial dose, many parents turned the health workers away, and about 725,000 fewer children got the vaccine.

"There were so many cases in the media from every place about children getting fever or getting diarrhea after the first vaccine," Sunarti said. "Many people were afraid the same thing would happen to their child."

In May, Sunarti had taken her daughter, Balqis, to the local clinic to be immunized. But she balked in June because the girl had a cough. Recounting this, Sunarti repeated the common refrain that the polio vaccine can be deadly for children if they are at all unwell.

Her neighbor, Cholifah, also turned away the health volunteers, claiming her son had mild diarrhea. "I learned from the television reports that it is best not to give a vaccine to a baby who is not fit," said Cholifah, 27, furrowing her brow and cradling the boy close.

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