Braving all odds: The superheroes with syringes

Meet the immunization champions from across India

Rajeshwari Sahay & Bhawna Priyadarshini
frontline health workers and volunteers
UNICEF/UN0499236/ Bhardwa
02 May 2022

India launched the world’s largest vaccination drive in January 2021 against COVID-19, and the country managed to fully vaccinate 61.3 per cent of its total population. The massive vaccination effort has been supported by the invaluable contribution of vaccinators and volunteers from across the country. 

Along with COVID-19 vaccination, frontline health workers also go beyond the call to ensure routine immunization for pregnant women and children during the pandemic. 

As we observe World Immunization Week, lest thank frontline health workers and volunteers, for reaching every home and getting every child vaccinated.

Mukesh Maida
UNICEF/UN0499233/Srishti Bhardwaj
Mukesh Maida, a doctor, travels in a boat with his team to conduct a vaccination session in a remote village in Ramgarh, Banswada in the western Indian state of Rajasthan.

Meet Dr Mukesh Maida, who ably led a team of Community Healthcare Workers that travelled to far-flung islands across turbulent rivers to reach Kotda village in Banswara, a remote tribal-dominated district in Rajasthan.

The Banswara region poses a huge topographical challenge. Dr Maida’s team took it upon themselves to conduct vaccination drives for people who could not reach vaccination centres due to waterlogging. It was not an easy task as the team also had to address deep-rooted hesitancy and myths around vaccination. 

 “We went from village to village, door to door and explained to people the risk of exposure to COVID-19 and the benefit of vaccination. We told them that we too had taken both the doses of COVID-19 vaccine and were safe”, says Dr Maida.

RKSK Volunteer
RKSK Volunteers interact with children to create awareness on COVID-19 appropriate behaviour (CAB) during a meeting in Narsingh Runda, Jhabua.

Narsinghrunda in the Jhabua district became the first village in Madhya Pradesh in September 2021 to administer both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to all eligible beneficiaries. This was made possible by the relentless efforts of volunteers, who worked hard to persuade and encourage the residents to get fully vaccinated.

Harshali Purohit, a young volunteer under the Government of India's Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (National Adolescent Health Programme), and her team worked hard to root out misinformation on COVID-19 vaccination and to address the profoundly entrenched vaccine hesitancy in her village.

She decided to bridge the communication gap by using a traditional ritual being innovatively practised in her village. She tweaked the customary practice of wedding invitations to the community members.

A mixture of rice and turmeric was placed at the guest's door, symbolising an invitation to the auspicious ceremony. Her team placed this mixture at the gates of eligible beneficiaries as an invitation to vaccination.

"We had to convince people in ways they understood. People were pleasantly piqued, and they agreed to come for the vaccination," said Harshali.

Levino Thapru taking the weight of a child
Levino Thapru taking the weight of a child at a routine immunisation center in Chunlikha village, Kohima in northeastern Indian state of Nagaland

In the idyllic city of Kohima in Nagaland, Levin Chapru is an Auxiliary NM who plays an instrumental role in delivering routine immunization for pregnant women and children. Under the aegis of the PHC Chunlikha, Levin walks to the remotest corners of the area from door to door to vaccinate infants.

New mothers are incredibly grateful and appreciative of the efforts because they often cannot travel themselves to the PHC to get their children vaccinated.

The cold chain storage and delivery process have been strengthened tremendously in the state, enabling many health workers to carry vaccines to the farthest pockets. Routine immunizations are essential for the well-being of citizens, and the noble endeavours of Levin and others are contributing immensely to this mission.

“Because of the vaccine carrier I have, I can carry my vaccines to far off villages and immunize mothers and their children”, says Levin.

Muneera Bano
Muneera Bano, 18, gets vaccinated at Darakujan village in Boniyar region in Indian union territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

Located in the Uri in Baramulla district in Jammu and Kashmir's northern Indian union territory, the primary health centre(PHC) Boniyar is nestled amidst a rough mountainous terrain. Tabassum Bashir, a young volunteer who completed her medical exams during the pandemic, contributed immensely towards ensuring the last-mile delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine in the district.

Traversing on foot to these far-flung villages during heavy snowfall, Tabassum often would have to halt overnight before continuing her journey. Even though her team faced resistance across age groups, they managed to bring almost the entirety of the adult population under the PHC Boniyar on board for COVID-9 immunisation.

Apart from ASHA workers and ANMs, even religious leaders like Imams in the villages were mobilised to help convince people to get vaccinated. The team also worked extensively with health and wellness centres to ensure the timely execution of routine vaccinations for women and children during the pandemic.

“We also strategically targeted educated families in villages so that they would, in turn, influence the rest of the population”, says Tabassum.

Huji bai with Navali Kumati Grasia
Huji bai with Navali Kumati Grasia. Navali Kumari has been using folk music and theatre to promote COVID-19 vaccination in the tribal areas and among her community in western Indian state of Rajasthan.

In Rajasthan’s Sirohi district, the Garasiyas are a tribal community characterised by their colourful clothing, unconventional approach to relationships and the belief in not piercing their body until they attain adulthood. This means the community has developed a scare of syringes, which has impacted the immunization rates of pregnant women and infants.

Since the terrain is mountainous and forested, the Garasiyas remain cut off from the modern world. When the vaccine drive started, home visits to this community would take an hour, and there was no way to determine if anyone would be at home. Vials were getting wasted, and vaccine hesitancy was running high.

In the face of these social and geographical barriers to immunization, Navli Gharasiya decided to utilise cultural symbols like dance and music to convince the community to get vaccinated. 

Twirling around in her colourful Ghaghara to folk songs about vaccines, Navli has caught the attention of many women in the community, who began to approach vaccination with more acceptance. In the process, it paved the way for their families to get immunized.

“I know how important it is to be aware, especially for girls and women”, says Navli.