Remove religion from public health decisions — Azrul Mohd Khalib


Source: The Malay Mail Online


JULY 2 — Ibn Sina or Avicenna, is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. A religious scholar, philosopher, scientist and doctor, Ibn Sina is considered to be the “father of modern medicine.”

His seminal treatise, the Canon of Medicine written in 1025, was used as the standard medical textbook in the Islamic world and Europe up to the 18th century.

European doctors were still doubling up as butchers and barbers, worked in slaughterhouses and were using bloodletting as a form of treatment for most ailments. Ibn Sina had a complex understanding of human anatomy and explored pioneering concepts which led to evidence based medicine.

If he were alive today, I think he would be pretty dismayed at the recent controversies which have involved misguided and misinformed pseudo-religious arguments in public health.

An anti-vaccination movement is currently growing in strength in Malaysia. Based on Ministry of Health data, the number of parents rejecting vaccinations for their children has almost tripled from 470 cases in 2013 to 1,282 in 2014.

Some have done so in the mistaken belief that vaccination causes autism, a supposed link that has been debunked by a number of peer-reviewed studies, and eventually revealed to be a fraudulent claim.

However, the rise in the number of parents refusing to inoculate their new-born children due to suspicion that the vaccines contain allegedly haram substances (i.e. pig DNA) is extremely alarming.

The criteria for determining whether or not a vaccine is to be used should not need to include strict consideration whether or not porcine enzymes were used in the manufacturing of the vaccine.

What is most important is that it is of high efficacy, is safe and that it does no harm.

Early childhood vaccination is meant to inoculate a person, particularly infants, children and teenagers against more than a dozen different diseases and illness which include measles, polio, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough).

Refusal to vaccinate would be life-threatening to not only your child but also to the children of the surrounding community. Your child could be barred from going to school, unable to participate in community events and be denied have a childhood like everyone else. It would make him or her, as well as those around, vulnerable to otherwise preventable diseases.

Since 2014, Malaysia has seen an increase in the number of measles, whooping cough and tetanus cases. Applying halal requirements onto an issue of public health such as immunisation, arguably threatens the safety and wellbeing of the community as a whole, not to mention the lives of the children in question.

Our society’s obsession of determining the halal status of everything from mineral water (don’t ask) and shopping trolleys to KTM train services and airlines, has led us to this dangerous predicament. We have desperately searched and scrutinised food products down to the molecular level for evidence and traces of porcine DNA. We have developed an irrational terror of the babi.

Another development which would have Ibn Sina scratching his head is the recent announcement by the Deputy Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya that sometime in the foreseeable future only women doctors would be permitted to deliver babies in public hospitals.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised anymore that a Deputy Health Minister should propose such a thing. After all, everyone seems to be rushing to be Shariah compliant (whatever that means) or wanting to be seen to be more Islamic and zealous in their practices.

Because this is what this discriminatory proposal is all about. It isn’t driven by the possibility that female doctors are better or more expert than men when it comes to obstetrics or gynaecology. Or that male doctors have butter fingers and break into cold sweat when faced with the bloody and excruciating process of childbirth.

It is mainly motivated by the concern that another man who is not the husband is seeing a woman’s aurat (refers to parts which must be covered, in this case genitals or intimate parts). That a woman’s modesty and honour needs to be protected from other men at all times. Even when they are doctors and nurses who are helping to deliver the child and caring for the mother throughout the process.

There have been instances in Malaysia where men have refused antenatal treatment for their wives after finding out the gynaecologist or obstetrician is a man on the basis of religion.

Last year, a Malaysian company made world headlines when it introduced maternity pants designed to conceal a women’s “intimate parts” and “preserve the dignity of females” during childbirth. It claimed to be the first of its kind in the world. I believe it.

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that such arguments (i.e. to protect women) are used to reinforce a culture of body-shaming and viewing women as the property of men.

So this imposition, while not realistic or possible (for the moment), is yet another symptom of this kind of thinking and misplaced religious beliefs.

For the mum to have a choice to decide on the doctor she prefers or is comfortable with is fine and acceptable. But I am sure that you would want to have the best pair of hands and expertise to help you through one of the most important moments of your life, regardless of whatever plumbing your doctor may have.

Today, we have doctors and surgeons who are professionals and experts in their fields. We have religious leaders and scholars who are proficient in their area of expertise.

There should be no need to refer vaccination or any other essential and scientifically proven public health measure to religious bodies and individuals such as the Fatwa Council, muftis and ulamas.

You don’t see the doctors and surgeons giving religious decrees and issuing fatwas.

So let’s not allow religious authorities, beliefs and dogma dictate our public health decisions.

* Azrul Mohd Khalib reads the Malay Mail Online