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UNICEF supports final push to eradicate polio in India

By Rajat Madhok

MORADABAD, India, 8 June 2011 – For 14-year-old Paro, it’s a momentous day. She’s the proud leader of the ‘Bulawa Toli’, a group of children who run from house to house, lane to lane, blowing whistles and shouting slogans to herald the arrival of polio vaccinators in their community.

VIDEO: 23 May 2011 - UNICEF's Sarah Crowe reports on the battle to eradicate polio in India.  Watch in RealPlayer


Paro and her friends knock on doors, making sure that every child in each household has received their two drops of the polio vaccine. At every stop, more children join her so that there are soon scores of excited children filling the air with slogans calling for a polio free community, state and nation.

At the same time, across town in another community, Sanjida, 37, is quietly going about her work, vaccinating children along with her colleague. While there’s no slogan shouting here, the intent is the same: rid the local community of the deadly virus. Sanjida knows first-hand the effects of polio –she contracted the virus when she was just two years old.

© UNICEF India/2011/Curtis
Paro, 14, and her group of young activists go from house to house looking for children who haven’t been vaccinated against polio in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Checking every child

Paro and Sanjida are among thousands working day and night trying to ensure India is free of polio, a virus which can have fatal effects on children. In Uttar Pradesh alone, one of India’s poorest states, more than 250,000 polio workers work at all levels to ensure the state remains polio free.

A new approach adopted by Sanjida and her colleagues is of counselling family members on matters beyond polio vaccination. They talk to them about good hygiene and sanitation. They also tell mothers to feed their newborns with colostrum and continue exclusively breast feeding their children for a minimum of six months. “All this will give them strength to fight against polio,” says Sanjida, whose husband has also been affected by polio.

Public service announcements and involvement of religious leaders who talk about polio eradication during daily prayers has made a significant difference. Now more people come up to polio workers and demand that their children be vaccinated, a significant shift from their earlier stance where certain communities strongly resisted vaccination drives.

© UNICEF India/2011/Curtis
Health worker Sanjida, 37, contracted polio as a young child. She is now helping polio eradication efforts in India.

Fighting stigma

Qari Mohammad Umar, 48, the head priest of a mosque in Moradabad is one of the many community leaders strongly advocating for polio eradication.

 “Initially we faced a lot of problems, people fought with us and many times when they saw polio workers,” says Mr. Umar, whose nephew is also a polio survivor. “They would send their children to their family members in different towns or would hide their children fearing that we would make their children impotent.”

He adds: “We got doctors and community elders to speak to them and convince them that the vaccine is good for their children and for our nation.”

Whilst the virus seems well contained within communities with not a single case reported in Uttar Pradesh for over a year, the big concern now is of migrant populations who lead nomadic lifestyles. Containing and monitoring the virus among these communities is a challenge. UNICEF and partners constantly work at nomadic slums or transit points like train and bus stations where large numbers of children could be potential carriers. Every day hundreds of children are vaccinated at such places and the effort continues.

© UNICEF India/2011/Curtis
A polio health volunteer looks for children inside a train at Moradabad train station in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and vaccinates as many toddlers as she can find.

Only one case of polio has been reported so far in India this year – an 18 month-old girl in Howrah near Kolkata. This is a marked decrease from 42 cases in 2010 and 741 polio cases reported the year previously.

But UNICEF Communication for Development Specialist Rod Curtis, while excited about India getting close to eradicating polio, is concerned about these migrant communities. The young girl affected by polio this year did not contract the virus locally: it had been carried from Delhi.

Challenge of migrant populations

“We know this from environment sampling that we do and it proves that somebody got on a train and travelled from Delhi, more than 1,000 km to Kolkata and spread the virus in that region,” he explains. “And it’s a perfect example to us of what threat migratory populations pose to us at this stage as we get very close to achieving eradication in India.”

Back at Bhramapuri, Paro has had a satisfying day, with nearly 300 children vaccinated in her area. The young health champion is gearing up for the next immunization day, when she and her band of friends will yet again go house to house looking for that one child who’s missed being vaccinated. Her fight against the fatal virus will continue until it is eradicated.



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