Commentary: Polio/Vitamin A
A Priceless LegacyBy Sheikh Hasina *
The global campaign to eradicate polio and eliminate vitamin A deficiency is a remarkable story of vision and commitment and an endeavour that is tantalizingly close to complete success.
It is 3:30 in the morning, in a village in Monirumpur in the western part of my country Bangladesh. The first call to prayer is yet to break the sombre silence of the night. Outside, it is pitch-black and there is no electricity. But on this special day, health workers and volunteers are already in the health complex, hard at work by the light of candles and lanterns.
They rapidly pack carrier boxes with vials and load them onto rickshaw vans; as day breaks, dozens of them pedal off, ringing their bells. They are headed for designated vaccination sites in villages, offices, public squares, bus stops and ferry ports, where mothers are already gathering with their children.
The scene set and actors in place, an amazing public health drama plays out throughout the day, time after time and child after child: Volunteers methodically administer two drops of liquid and squeeze the contents of a capsule into a small mouth.
The liquid is oral polio vaccine, and the capsule contains vitamin A. When the activities in Monirumpur and in thousands of other communities throughout Bangladesh ended, nearly 90 per cent of all under-fives in the country had been immunized against polio and protected from vitamin A deficiency. It was another extraordinary and routine National Immunization Day (NID).
These Days have galvanized the nation, drawing people from virtually every stratum of society. Volunteers are the backbone: 600,000 volunteers made our last NID possible, and many of them had participated in previous NIDs over the years, for the sake of the country's children.
Each Day is meticulously arranged and requires determination and hard work. Advocacy and planning meetings are held at all levels, from the national to the local, where volunteers are mobilized and people motivated to have their children vaccinated. Radio and television networks broadcast discussions and interviews. Newspapers put out special supplements with messages from political and social leaders in our country, such as the President and myself. Posters, leaflets, stickers, billboard messages and banners are distributed and local folk singers are particularly effective in letting people know where and when to bring their children for vaccination.
NIDs and other health interventions are credited with saving the lives of more than 120,000 children every year in Bangladesh. Before we started holding NIDs in 1995, there were more than 2,000 estimated cases of polio a year in our country. Last year, according to WHO, we had 282 cases.*
* Only five of these were confirmed as caused by wild polio virus, which is responsible for all person-to-person transmission of the disease.