In his office, Ozbek Azhi Chotonov, head of the Bishkek-based Islamic think tank Source of the Truth, plays a news clip about the hospitalization of a young girl in neighboring Kazakhstan after a bad reaction to a vaccine. For him, the report constitutes Exhibit A as to why vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they are designed to prevent.
“These vaccines contain 10-15 different metals in a single dose. Better to catch a disease and recover than die from some vaccine,” Chotonov said during an interview with EurasiaNet.org.
Such attitudes have played a prominent role in the worst outbreak of measles in the country since independence. The situation is such that Kyrgyzstan, with over 7,000 confirmed cases, now has the highest incidence of measles in the region the United Nations classifies as Europe and Central Asia (ECA).
Kyrgyzstan currently accounts for just under a third of the cases in the ECA region that have been registered by the World Health Organization (WHO). In comments to Reuters, Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s chief for the region, admitted to being “taken aback” by the global re-emergence of the disease. At present, more than 80 percent of the world’s children receive vaccinations against measles; the WHO has asked countries to ramp up vaccinations, but has not called for compulsory programs.
Health officials in Kyrgyzstan complain that online conspiracy theories and local customs are helping to undermine their efforts to contain the outbreak.
When it comes to the role of faith, nothing in the Koran discourages the use of vaccines, which were not discovered and implemented at the time the Islamic holy book was written. Yet, many Kyrgyzstani citizens who have resisted advice to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps and rubella have cited religious reasons for doing so.
Chotonov is among the more vocal faith-based, anti-vaxxers in Kyrgyzstan. He calls vaccinations “unnatural” and favours an outright ban. The country’s government has been penetrated by an “international pharmacy mafia”, which makes their advice untrustworthy, he adds. Due to widespread vaccinations “our children are growing up weak-minded with various defects,” he said.
Ruslan Beknazarov, the son of a former General Prosecutor who has styled himself as a socially conservative opposition politician, is also against vaccinations, but denies he is using the controversy around the topic to score political points with Muslims. “It is my position as a parent. They say that a vaccine contains a half-live virus inside it. I would not want to inject my children with that,” Beknazarov told EurasiaNet.org by phone.
By the end of December there were 2,598 measles cases in the country, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. With growing religious observance in the country, it is no surprise the country’s Ministry of Health turned to the country’s Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (known as the Muftiate) for help in trying to promote vaccinations and stem the brewing public health crisis.
On February 28, the Muftiate finally issued a press-release that noted “everybody has the right to vaccinate themselves against one or another epidemic.” It went on to blame “uninformed” opinions on the relationship between Islam and vaccines for fuelling the outbreak and promised to conduct preventative work during Friday prayers.
Anarbek Alimakhunov, press-secretary for the Ministry of Health, declined to comment on why it took the Muftiate so long to release the statement. He merely noted that the ministry expected it to have a “very positive effect” in encouraging more vaccinations among the population.
He added that rumor, as well as religion, would remain a powerful force to contend with. “More and more people have access to the internet. Unfortunately many struggle to filter information. They read different theories and decide for themselves what to believe,” Alimakhunov told EurasiaNet.org.
In the midst of the outbreak, many have grown wary of being in public places. A 37-year-old Bishkek resident who contracted measles despite being twice vaccinated said he was unsure where he had come into contact with the virus. “I may have contracted it at a swimming pool. I had known people to get sick from swimming in the pools some years before. The water may not have been as clean as I had hoped,” he told EurasiaNet.org.
If the measles outbreak doesn’t subside soon, it may have an adverse economic impact on already hard-pressed entrepreneurs. The administrator of a family-themed café in central Bishkek says many of her regular clients are staying away because of talk of an epidemic. “This period, from after New Year through to March, is often quiet, but if compared to last year, we have only had half as many clients,” she said.
Chris Rickleton is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.