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Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Brings Global Perspective to Mason Students

Posted 25 Feb 2015

A key advantage of having a Fulbright Scholar at a university is to build students’ understanding of other cultures. At George Mason University, 30 students are gaining this understanding and more from a social work professor who strived to eradicate a deadly disease from India through the grassroots education of the populace.

Professor Zubair Meenai, George Mason’s Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence, arrived in the United States from India in late December. He is teaching an undergraduate course on health and human rights to social work and global community health majors this semester. He is hosted by Mason’s Department of Social Work.

“What I bring to the class is a global perspective. I am very consciously sensitizing them to the fact that the world needs a lot of young people to work in the area of health,” he says.

Meenai worked extensively in public health in India, so the practical experience he’s gained is something he shares with Mason students.

“I am exposing them to a very different way of looking at health. We are talking about human rights, public health as a human right and social determinates of health,” he says.

The class will explore some of the major public health issues in the world, such as malnutrition and outbreaks of tuberculosis and polio.

Meenai is the former head of the department of social work at Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, in New Delhi, India, where he serves as director of the Centre for Early Childhood Development and Research. He is also president of the Indian Association of Social Work Education.

One of the greatest projects of his public health career is working with UNICEF to make India a polio-free country, Meenai says.

“Around 2002 and 2005, there was a huge polio outbreak in India. At that time it was found that people were not willing to take the polio vaccine,” he says.

Since most of those who refused to be vaccinated—between 70 and 80 percent—were Muslims, the Indian government reached out to Meenai and other faculty at Jamia Millia Islamia for assistance.

“We started mobilizing people and creating networks of religious institutions and going out almost every weekend to different provinces and talking to people,” he says. “We were able to find out that there were several rumors being spread about the vaccine that it was not a good thing to use.”

Meenai and others worked with UNICEF to educate people about the vaccine and increase vaccination rates. Within 10 years, he says, the number of polio cases had been reduced to zero, and India is now in its third year of being polio-free.

“This is work that is, personally, very satisfying,” he says.

He believes there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing public health care concerns, but key components are knowing and understanding your audience.

“You look for people who are good influencers,” he says. “We created advocates for the (polio) vaccine. It could have been a schoolteacher who is the most respected person living in the community. Sometimes it was a local doctor and sometimes it was the priest or the clergy. Anyone whose opinion mattered to them was a celebrity to us.”

These “celebrities” in each area were sensitized, given a common platform and then asked to address the community. Printed material produced to end the Indian polio outbreak was translated into different languages and is still being used in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where there are a large number of polio cases.

During his residency, Meenai is being co-hosted by Mason and Northern Virginia Community College, where he will present several lectures on India’s experience with public health, issues in early childhood in India and other subjects. He returns to India in late May.

This article originally appeared on the Mason NewDesk and was written by Jamie Rogers. Reach out to her here: jroger20@gmu.edu.