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Mecca-bound Pilgrims call for end of Polio

Patna, 22 May 2008: Javed Mian, 65, is a small-time businessman in the Sabzi Bagh locality of Patna, the capital city of the eastern Indian state of Bihar.

His most cherished dream has always been to go for pilgrimage or Haj to the holy city of Mecca. But he never imagined that the route to Mecca would go via the office of the district’s senior-most health official where he would be immunized against polio.

Javed is one of 110,000 pilgrims from India and many more from countries that are still reporting polio cases and must submit proof of being vaccinated against the deadly virus in order to obtain visa from Saudi Arabia government.

Nearly 20 million children in Bihar are vaccinated in each pulse polio round, making it one of the world’s most intensive campaigns. Additionally, the State government with support from UNICEF is making special arrangements to ease the passage of Mecca bound pilgrims and ensure that completed applications are filed on time.

“It is because of the handful of people who are not letting their children take polio vaccine that people like me have to take these drops,” says Javed, adding: “Everybody in the community should join hands to eradicate polio, as it is very harmful for our children and a blot on our country.”

Javed’s sentiments were echoed by nearly all pilgrims. As they lined-up for their turn to receive the vaccine and certificate from the Civil Surgeon, some Mecca-bound pilgrims said that they would offer prayers on behalf of children who have been crippled by the disease and plead for banishment of the virus from India. 

“Apart from keeping Saudi Arabia protected from introduction of the polio virus, this directive is helping us allay fears of the very few remaining people who felt reluctant to vaccinate their children against the polio virus,” said UNICEF State Representative of Bihar Bijaya Rajbhandari.

Dr. Gopal Krishna, State Immunization Officer, Bihar State Health Society, said: “The health department is facilitating polio vaccination of all pilgrims in each district of Bihar while community-based social mobilization coordinators are helping spread the word about immunization and are also helping in communicating its significance.”

Welcoming the decision of the government to decentralize the process, Iftakhar Hasan, executive officer of the Haj Committee that coordinates affairs of all pilgrims from India, said: “All the Haj pilgrims are being administered polio vaccine in their own districts and are getting the certificate locally. This makes things convenient for them since they do not need to come to the Haj Bhawan in Patna to get the polio vaccine.”

Bihar does not have a significant population who are reluctant to taking the polio vaccine, however, the directive from the Saudi Arabia government has helped in addressing some of the myths and misconceptions regarding the vaccine that are prevalent among a handful.

Shagufta Naz, a UNICEF-trained Community Mobilization Coordinator in Gulzarbag of Patna, said: “The news of polio vaccination of Haj pilgrims has really helped us to convince the few families who still believed that the polio vaccine is not safe.”

Now with all Mecca-bound pilgrims joining hands in prayers for the end of polio virus, the day of polio free Bihar seems not too far.

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