Two gatherings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia this week, although held separately, came close, but not quite, to bringing together the twin issues of vaccines and the practice of halal by Muslims who comprise a third of Asia's population. Apparently, neither of the two primary gatherings had the concerns of the other on its agenda.
Just after the Bi-Regional meeting on Preventing Childhood Pneumonia and Meningitis with Vaccination wound up its two-day meeting, the World Halal Summit 2015 opened. There was no indication halal was an issue of the first, vaccines the issue of the second even though each was a key to the other's needs.
It appeared the two conferences missed a serendipitous opportunity to address the issues together.
Malaysia Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak mentioned the two issues in the same sentence at the opening of the halal summit when he noted that Saudi Arabia's AJ Pharma Holdings was building a plant in Malaysia to make halal vaccines in collaboration with the country's Halal Industry Development Board in developing them.
Although usually applied to food, where certain products have to be sanctioned by ritual, much as Jews have kosher, it also can be applied to ingredients in other products, such as vaccines that usually contain a bit of the bacteria they are supposed to prevent.
Yet, there apparently was no discussion of the twin issue on any agenda. Even within the Muslim community concerned about halal, there appears to be disagreement about whether such a thing as a halal vaccine even exists.
At one of the side-conferences of the halal gathering, the CEO of the Halal Industry Development Corp. mentioned the AJ Pharma plant expected to begin operations in 2017 and added that were no vaccine producers with halal certification for the world's 1.8 billion Muslims in the world.
That was at odds with what an organization of Pakistan religious scholars said in a letter to a provincial health agency, saying: "After necessary consultations with scholars from all major sects both within the country and abroad, and in light of the information collected from health experts, we came round to the conclusion that all vaccines provided in Pakistan, including polio, are of the same quality and standard as in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Iran, Egypt and the rest of the world.
The polio vaccine is halal and does not contain any harmful ingredients. All parents must provide immunization cover to their children, especially polio drops."
That "fatwa" was intended to end the resistance within much of the Muslim community to vaccinating at least the children.
At the vaccine conference this week, it was noted that the incidences of meningitis and pneumonia in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific was more serious than the accepted World Health Organization estimate of more than 700,000.
A WHO representative who addressed one session said it was time to decide whether vaccines developed against the two diseases are to be given to children or wait for additional data.
Other groups, including the GAVI Alliance, have pushed for vaccines for children in developing countries and discussed some of the problems they face in getting the preventatives to the people who need them.