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Polio immunization campaign to protect 20 million children in India

© UNICEF India/2005
A child being immunized during India's annual Shraavani Mela pilgrimage. The pilgrimage offered UNICEF and partners an important opportunity to reach many ‘transit’ children, who are on the move with their families and otherwise hard to reach.

By Anupam Srivastava

DEOGARH, India, 20 September 2005 – Beginning on Sunday, nearly 100,000 vaccinators will immunize more than 20 million children against polio in Bihar state – one of two states in India where polio remains endemic.

Sunday’s polio drive follows a massive state-wide campaign launched on 15 August to boost routine vaccinations. Bihar is one of the country’s least developed states, and has among the lowest immunization rates. Routine coverage in 1999 was just 11 per cent.

Country-wide, the number of reported polio cases dropped from 1,934 in 1998 to 268 in 2001, but rose again to 1,600 in 2002. In 2003, there were only 225 confirmed cases, offering hope that the country is well on its way to interrupting transmission.

Reaching migrant children is key

The proportion of children immunized against measles, the biggest killer among vaccine-preventable diseases, however, has dropped to 61 per cent, from 72 percent in 1995.

India is one of just six countries globally where the disease is still endemic.

In Bihar nearly 60 of every 1,000 children do not live to celebrate their first birthday, mainly because nearly nine out of 10 children in the state are not immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases.  

As a key partner in the national polio programme, UNICEF has taken the lead in strengthening the campaign’s ‘transit’ strategy, which is intended to reach children historically excluded from services such as vaccinations because they are too often on the move. The most recent data show a 50 per cent increase in coverage compared with last year.

© UNICEF India/2005
Another child is immunized at the Shraavani Mela pilgrimage.

‘Walk with the pilgrims’

The August campaign took place during the annual monsoon-season pilgrimage, called the ‘Shraavani Mela’ or Monsoon Fair. The Shraavani Mela offered UNICEF and partners an important opportunity to reach many of these ‘transit’ children.

For both the August campaign and the current effort, Indian celebrities including Shekhar Suman, a popular Bihari television and film personality, have lent their names and appeal, to help make sure that messages reach the parents whose children need immunization.

As an endless line of saffron-clad pilgrims carrying river water in earthen vessels trickled into the city of Deogarh, many limped along on bandaged feet. For over a month during the Shraavani Mela, UNICEF worked with the government and partners to plug all virus transmission routes.

Two-person teams were deployed to 39 key junctures, and told to “walk with the pilgrims and vaccinate their children.” Nearly 25,000 children were vaccinated by transit and mobile teams in the first 15 days alone. UNICEF also organised two immunization drives for children who live in Deogarh.

Munai Tatwa, 60, was travelling with his wife and grandson, Karan, who is three years old. “We have taken great care to keep him well on this arduous trek. Wherever I go the vaccinators reach me. Thank you,” he said.

UNICEF has provided power generators to health centres with unstable power systems and supplied 3,000 cold boxes and 65 deep freezers to store vaccines.  UNICEF is also working with the government in making systemic changes to ensure that routine immunization becomes exactly that – routine.

Jyoti Rao and Marixie Mercado also contributed to this story.



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