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In India, UNICEF Executive Director urges focus on most vulnerable children to save lives

By Angela Walker

RAMPUR RATNAKER, India, 7 December 2010 – UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visited the Indian state of Bihar today and administered oral polio vaccine to babies brought by their families to be immunized during Village Health and Nutrition Day, which offers integrated health services to villagers once a month.

VIDEO: 7 December 2010 - UNICEF correspondent Anja Baron reports on Executive Director Anthony Lake's visit to UNICEF programmes in India's Bihar state.  Watch in RealPlayer


Routine immunization coverage is critical for children to have adequate immunity against polio and other childhood diseases.

“We can save more lives, not by forgetting the poorest people and the hardest to reach places, but by focusing investment directly upon them,” said Mr. Lake. “India is in the process of proving that such an equity focus is not only right in principle, it is right in practice – providing returns in the poorest areas.”

Immunization campaigns

In 2009, more than 1,600 children were affected by polio globally, 741 of them in India. Of those cases, 719 were children from the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2553/Crouch
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake meets villagers in Rampur Ratnakar, located in India’s Bihar state, during their monthly Village Health and Nutrition Day.

The Polio Partnership in India is led by the government, with support from the World Health Organization’s National Polio Surveillance Project, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF, with significant contributions by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The partnership works with health workers, civil society groups and local communities to make sure every child under the age of five is immunized against polio.

Eleven polio vaccination campaigns have been conducted in Bihar in 2010, supported by more than 1,000 mobilizers spread across the state. Only nine cases of polio have been recorded in Bihar this year.

Targeted health services

Mobilizers involved in the immunization drives also promote diarrhoea management with oral rehydration salts and zinc, as well as handwashing, toilet use and exclusive breastfeeding.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2554/Crouch
Janki Devi carries her five-month-old granddaughter to a polio vaccination post in Rampur Ratnakar village, where UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake visited during his trip to India’s Bihar state.

“What you are doing here in India today – focusing on providing targeted services at the community and health facility level, strengthening the continuum of care and developing a framework for following up throughout a child’s life with other lifesaving interventions – is a blueprint for us all and the world should be watching your progress,” Mr. Lake told UNICEF staff here.

Bihar has witnessed a 400 per cent jump in full immunization coverage over the last five years. Even with this impressive gain, only about half of children in the state are fully immunized, compared to about two-thirds throughout India.

Helping the community

On Village Health and Nutrition Day, auxiliary nurse-midwife Geeta Devi wears a baseball cap festooned with the logos of the polio partners and dark glasses to protect herself from the bright afternoon sun. Booths are draped with bright spangled red, blue, orange and yellow fabric and dotted with colourful posters bearing nutrition, health and hygiene messages.

For each child who receives two drops of protection against polio, Ms. Devi colours his or her pinkie nail with a black marker to show that the child has been vaccinated.

“The rich have money, and they can go to another place. The poor people have nothing,” she explains. “It’s impossible to get to the health clinic because of the road and the transport costs. I’m helping the entire community’s pregnant mothers and their children with routine immunization.”



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