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When a health worker, Sadaf, met Amitabh Bachchan

Aug 22, 2014

A community mobilisation coordinator, Parveen, 27, was handpicked from an army of 8,000 frontline workers for her exceptional efforts to ensure polio immunization, writes Tripti Nath.

Amitabh Sadaf

New Delhi: Sadaf Parveen from Malitola village, in Basti district of Uttar Pradesh, could not believe her good fortune when legendary actor and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan embraced her on stage during a recent public event in Delhi to convey his appreciation for her work on polio immunisation. A community mobilisation coordinator, Parveen, 27, was handpicked from an army of 8,000 frontline workers for her exceptional efforts to ensure polio immunisation.

Though Bachchan is the more celebrated face of the Pulse Polio Immunisation programme, it is women health workers like Parveen who have overcome barriers of illiteracy, religion and extreme weather to convince mothers to get their children ‘do boond zindagi ki’ (two drops of life), which have enabled India achieve polio free status.

As a health worker with the Social Mobilisation Network, Parveen’s routine for the last seven years has revolved around going door-to-door in Malitola, 200 kilometres from the state capital, Lucknow, educating expectant women and new mothers about the benefits of routine immunisation during the bi-monthly immunisation rounds. “I have to ensure that every child from 0 to five years gets the polio drops during six day polio immunisation rounds,” she states.

The Social Mobilisation Network, better known as SMNET, was started by UNICEF in Uttar Pradesh in 2002, and it expanded to Bihar in 2005 to generate community support for activities related to polio vaccination.

There were two reasons that prompted Parveen to join SMNET – firstly, a strong desire to help her mother, and, secondly, to ensure that no child would have to face the pain of living with disability like her childhood friend Shama Khatoon.

The diligent young woman, who was forced to drop out of school in 2005-06 due to a financial crisis in the family, says, “I am the youngest of nine siblings. I was only five when I lost my father in 1993. He was running a shoe shop that we had to close it down after he died. My mother used to take care of the household expenses by stitching clothes. When it came to supporting my education she was helpless as it was a question of choosing between paying my fee and feeding us.

In 2007, I noticed SMNET workers on their usual round in my area. As I watched them something struck within me. I remembered my friend Shama who had polio. When all the children used to play she would sit quietly and watch us. I used to feel really bad. We had studied together till Class Eight at Montessori School. She is now in Mumbai and is really proud of the work I am doing. I am in charge of 435 households in my area. Of these352 households belong to families from the minority community.”

For Parveen, her job as an immunisation worker has been a valuable learning experience. “I joined on December 28, 2007, and it took me nearly a year to understand why people were so resistant to giving their children the polio drops. They would simply slam the door on my face, but I did not give up. They had strange notions and feared that polio drops would make their boys impotent. When I used to try to reason with them, they would ask me whether I would take responsibility if the drops had some side effects. To tackle these mind blocks, I requested a doctor in Malitola to spread the word about the benefits of immunisation. That worked wonders and we began holding one polio immunisation camp at his clinic. Nowadays, 98 per cent children are brought in by their parents on the very first day of the immunisation round. During the six day polio immunisation round, I am required to cover 90 to 120 households between 8 am to 4 pm and ensure that not a single child is left out,” she reveals.

Despite her tough assignment, Parveen has succeeded in resuming her studies by saving some money from her monthly salary of Rs 1,700. “Unfortunately, my brother and sister have also dropped out of school to keep their home running. My mother’s weak sight no longer allows her to stitch clothes. Together, we earn about Rs 5,500 but I want to complete my studies. I scored 80 per cent in Class 11,” she informs, happily.

Although Parveen is a strong, confident woman she did become nervous at the prospect of sharing the stage with cinema legend Bachchan. She says, “As an immunisation motivator, I constantly talk to families and pregnant women but speaking in front of dignitaries and Amitabh Bachchan, especially, was unthinkable. I was really nervous.” There is no denying the fact that Bachchan’s immunisation message delivered in his signature baritone through television and radio spots has contributed significantly to vaccination coverage across the country.

As India celebrates, countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Iraq and others, who are struggling to save their children from this disease, can draw hope from our domestic success, driven by the untiring efforts of the 25 lakh immunisation workers. India has truly worked hard to have its name struck off from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of polio epidemic countries.

It was in 1995 that India, with support of UNICEF and WHO, launched the Pulse Polio Immunisation Programme along with the Universal Immunisation Programme. At that time, the maximum number of cases was being reported from Uttar Pradesh followed by Bihar and West Bengal. Concerted activism by the likes of Parveen ensured that by 2010 Uttar Pradesh and Bihar reported their last two cases of polio from Ferozabad and East Champaran, respectively. The last case of polio was reported from Howrah in West Bengal in January 2011 and on March 27, 2014, WHO officially declared India to be polio free, with no new cases being reported for three years.

Of course, Dr Jorge Caravotta, UNICEF's Programme Manager, Polio Eradication Programme for Uttar Pradesh, cautions that India has to remain vigilant, “India is polio free but the world is not. India is very vulnerable. We have to ensure that the virus is not imported. We should learn lessons from Syria and Iraq where cases were detected long after they had eliminated polio.”

In his book, ‘A Tale of Two Drops’, India’s Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, who pioneered polio eradication in the country, has warned that the re-infection due to import of the virus in 23 previously polio free countries in 2009-10 should be an eye-opener for everyone involved in the programme. The fear of import of the polio virus from India’s immediate neighbour Pakistan, which reported the last case of polio on July 9, 2014, is real. According to a recent news report, WHO has confirmed that polio virus from Pakistan has spread to Israel, West Bank, Gaza and Iraq.

An Argentinean public health specialist, Dr Caravotta says that the Indian government has issued a travel advisory that necessitates travellers to and from the polio endemic countries to receive a dose of polio vaccine (two drops orally) regardless of age, sex or previous immunisation status, at least four weeks before the travel.  Each traveller is required to carry a certificate signed by the designated officer.

India should make optimum use of WHO supported high quality surveillance to ensure lasting freedom from this crippling disease that has denied many children a carefree and happy childhood. The next nationwide polio immunisation round is due in mid-September and young mothers must do their bit for their children to keep this crippling disease at bay.

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