Parents lined up across Indonesia early yesterday to take part in a polio vaccination drive that will target 24 million children, as health officials worried the crippling disease could spread to other Southeast Asian countries.
Polio has sickened 225 children since the virus reappeared in mostly Muslim Indonesia in March for the first time in 10 years, and yesterday's operation was the latest round in a massive campaign to stamp it out.
Political leaders and celebrities have been enlisted to help convince a skeptical public that the vaccinations are safe following unfounded rumors -- like those that circulated in Nigeria in 2003 -- that they were dangerous and violated Islamic law.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's wife personally administered oral drops at a makeshift health center in a Jakarta suburb, where the mood was festive with balloons and a live band.
"People should not be afraid. We're doing this for the sake of the children, for the sake of the next generation," Kristiani Yudhoyono said.
The US$24 million campaign was comparable in preparation to a general election. More than 750,000 health workers fanned out across the sprawling archipelago at 245,000 posts set up at clinics, bus depots, rail stations and airports.
The army and police were helping deliver vaccine -- by plane, boat, bicycle and foot -- to some of Indonesia's 6,000 inhabited islands.
Health workers said they were encouraged by larger than expected turn outs, especially in the capital, where hundreds of parents lined up at vaccination posts accompanied by children in school uniforms and toddlers on their hips.
"I'm optimistic, but this is just the beginning," said I. Nyoman Kandun, who is heading the polio campaign for the Ministry of Health, noting that another round of immunizations is scheduled for Sept. 27. "We have remote areas that are not easily reached."
Hours after the campaign kicked off, parents enthusiastically held up their children's hands, red dots on their pinkies testimony that they'd been vaccinated.
In Sepadan, a village 40km west of Jakarta, Murtina said, "I've seen children on television with polio," said the mother of three. "I don't want my daughter to suffer like that."
But a few said false media reports convinced them that the vaccinations could put their children at risk -- the most recent on privately run SCTV early yesterday. Those claims, like others, were quickly countered by the government and the WHO, which warned of the dangers of false media reports.
"The vaccine will not create any side affects," Health Minister Siti Fadilah Supari said, adding that religious leaders and non-governmental activists had been asked to call parents to make sure no child missed out. But 35-year-old tailor, Darnelis, said she had no plans to immunize her three children.
"My husband prohibits it," she said from her cluttered one-room house in the low-income neighborhood of Tanah Abang. "We've heard reports on television about some children getting sick."
"We never got the vaccine," she added. "And we're safe. So why do they need it."