A health worker prepares a syringe with a vaccine against measles. Health authorities in Thailand are trying to contain a measles outbreak in the country's southern provinces, where at least 13 deaths and more than 1,500 cases have been reported since September.

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Sometimes it’s incredibly easy to save a child’s life. Two doses of the measles vaccine into a child’s arm or thigh is almost 100 percent effective at preventing a disease that starts with a simple fever, but can rapidly progress and have deadly complications. Since 2000, the safe, inexpensive, and effective measles vaccine has prevented more than 20 million deaths.

But sometimes words can be enough to kill a child. That’s happening now in southern Thailand, where a 9-month-old girl has become at least the 13th measles fatality in the past six months. The cause of the disease outbreak that has infected thousands isn’t poverty, neglect, or a poor health system. It’s because certain local Islamic teachers are preaching the vaccine is somehow un-Islamic, leading to a drop in vaccination rates and a quick revival of the deadly disease.

The Chularatchamontri – Thailand’s top Muslim spiritual leader – rejects that vaccinations are contrary to Islamic principles. The Central Islamic Council of Thailand has said that even if vaccines contained religiously prohibited items, the medical benefit to a person and the community would take precedence. Globally, imams and other Islamic leaders have repeatedly issued statements and fatwas describing how immunization is consistent with Islamic principles.

The disinformation campaign opposing vaccinations is likely linked to local leaders who support separatist movements in Thailand’s Muslim-majority southern provinces. Separatist insurgents have burned down public health centers, murdered public health volunteers and hospital staff, and used a hospital for military purposes – all violations of international humanitarian law. They target the public health system as symbolic of what they consider to be the Thai Buddhist state’s occupation of their homeland. But it’s a tactic that kills children in their community. 

Vaccination programs have been successful elsewhere in Thailand in saving children from this uniquely contagious disease. Dissuading vaccinations for preventable diseases is less direct than burning down public health centers or placing a bomb outside a school, but it can lead to equally devastating consequences. The work of the doctors and public health officials to ensure all children in southern Thailand are vaccinated should be allowed to proceed without interference. Children’s lives depend upon it.