By Jenny Horton, Rotary Club of Kenmore, Australia
The state of West Bengal in eastern India presented many problems to polio eradicators. The poliovirus was imported into one of the northern districts in January 2010 and was still circulating the following December, with eight confirmed wild polio cases. Even with monthly immunization campaigns, reaching every child to stop the virus from circulating proved difficult.
National Polio Plus Committee Chairman Deepak Kapur needed a new plan. So he met with Rotary leadership in district 3240 (in North Bengal) and asked them to gather Rotarians and cross the border into district 3291 (includes parts of West Bengal) to assist with health camps in areas where many children were not being vaccinated. Within weeks, Rotarians from several clubs in district 3240, under Past District Governor Tapan Ray’s leadership, crossed the border to undertake two health camps to treat under-5-year-olds and, at the same time, vaccinate children with the oral polio vaccine.
With support from partners (the West Bengal government, WHO, and UNICEF), 23 camps have been held in the past year, treating over 13,000 children including polio vaccinations for 3,575. I was able to witness one camp and found it totally overwhelming. Thirty Rotarians arrived (of which eight were doctors) and were joined by three non-Rotarian doctors and an ambulance filled with medicine. Rotarians drove to an area identified by the local government and WHO team as an area of highest risk and set up the camp within 10 minutes.
Soon, there was a long line of mothers with babies who needed medical advice. Rotarians were keeping registers and issuing slips for the mothers, who then moved on to have a consultation with a doctor. From there, the mom took the slip to the pharmacist where the family was provided with the necessary medicines and advice on administration. The line of mothers was never-ending and the Rotarians just kept working. After four hours, they moved to another site to do the same. There was no fancy lunch, no long breaks, just a box lunch as they drove from one place to another. On that day, over 1,000 children were treated for various illnesses through the generosity of Rotarians.
As a Rotarian, I have never been more proud than I was standing there, watching this happen. Rotarians came from several clubs in district 3240, and some had travelled many hours to join the camp. While I was there, a Rotary video van showed DVDs on the importance of vaccination and hand washing. I joined Rotarians visiting the homes of some of the resistant families to chat about taking vaccines. The local families have come to see that there is real concern for the kids, not only in giving polio vaccinations but in providing much needed health care.
The huge commitment has played a major role in stopping the circulation of polio virus in this area. India has not reported a new polio case in a year. My hat’s off to these Rotarians who built a bridge across a border and made a real difference.