It was once thought impossible, but two million footsoldiers and a 35-year-fight have won India its biggest public health success story. Pritha Chatterjee & Santosh Singh on how the battle was won and the biggest challenges ahead.
It’s one of the busiest spots along the porous India-Nepal border. At about 1.30 pm in Raxaul, in Bihar’s East Champaran district, there is a huge flux of Indians and Nepalis at the bus stand and the railway station. As people get off bikes, cars, rickshaws and tongas, many of them headed to the other side of the border, a group of eight men stands out. They flag down, sometimes even run behind, any vehicle carrying a child who looks below the age of five. They then introduce themselves to the parents as government-authorised polio vaccinators, and convince them to get their child immunised. Split into four teams of two member each, the eight have been at the job everyday at this transit point since 2011, even though the last polio case reported from Bihar was in September 2010.
Surjit Singh, 35, and Dinesh Kumar Singh, 40, two of the vaccinators deployed at the Shankar-acharya gate at Birganj, manage to convince Babita, an Indian with a relative in Nepal, to allow them to administer polio drops to her one-year-old son. “I am used to seeing vaccination at the border as I frequently travel to Nepal,” she says.
An average of 130-200 children are given polio drops each day at this gate alone, from 7 am to 7 pm. “We give polio doses to children coming from Nepal too,” says Surjit. For this, they take the help of Sashastra Seema Bal personnel. They are deployed at 17 checkpoints on the India-Nepal border in East Champaran, and their presence ensures that “all children below five years crossing the border are immunised”, says Surjit. “Even if a child coming from Nepal has taken the polio dose recently but his/her nail mark is faded, we give the dose.”
Surjit and Dinesh are among the two million-plus footsoldiers in India’s biggest public health success story. On January 13, 2014, India crossed an important milestone — three years have passed without any new reported case of polio, making it eligible to be declared polio-free. Surjit and Dinesh manned an important frontier along with many others in that battle, ensuring the disease didn’t sneak in across the international borders with Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan, by running continuous polio immunisation posts. Of the three remaining countries in the world that are still battling polio, Pakistan is one, the others being Nigeria and Afghanistan.
It was just four years ago, in 2009, that continued…