By former Foundation Trustee Ashok Mahajan
Since 1993, I have been deeply involved in the polio eradication program, Rotary’s top priority, both as a member of Rotary and in various leadership positions. I have many strong memories of the challenges, triumphs and setbacks we’ve faced along the way as we pursued ending this crippling disease in my country.
One thing I will always remember is the extensive efforts we made to build goodwill and acceptance of polio immunization in the Muslim community and among religious leaders.
My first extensive involvement with the campaign came in 1997, as I worked on polio immunizations in Bhiwandi, a community rampant with polio cases. I was tasked with working with the Muslim population to gain their acceptance and we were able to proceed with immunizations.
Next, I began to work in Mumbai to increase acceptance of the polio vaccine among Muslims there. I visited the Baba Makhdoom Shah Baba Dargah temple and through repeated meetings convinced the imam to issue his support for polio eradication. The imam agreed to announce our activities after the weekly Friday prayers, and educate people about our intentions, which convinced many people to have their children immunized against polio. As people began to accept the vaccine, resistance dropped in the Muslim community, and in due course, Mumbai became polio-free.
When Uttar Pradesh in northern India became notorious as the epicenter for the virus, I was able to use my experience in Mumbai to make a difference. In 2006, Rotary’s National Committee came up with the idea of reaching out to imams, ulemas and other Muslim religious leaders to tackle resistance in the community. An initial meeting drew more than 90 religious leaders from all over Uttar Pradesh and we were able to convince them that polio immunizations are a common good for children of all religions, castes, races, and creeds.
The ulemas suggested forming a committee dedicated to convincing the Muslim community to take part in immunizations. Meeting in various locales, they gained promising results. I and many other Rotary members, especially from clubs in Uttar Pradesh, traveled extensively to all the districts in the state. Our continuous efforts to involve the Muslim community in convincing their own to be immunized proved pivotal. The Ulema Committee played a key role in making National Immunization Days and Subnational Immunization Days successful in Uttar Pradesh, reducing polio rates in high-risk communities.
We have come a long way from the early years when India reported cases every day. India has now gone three years without a reported case. I personally feel the journey has been an overwhelming experience. I’ve benefited from the camaraderie and strength of Rotarians, and through the process discovered a greater resiliency and resolve than I’ve ever known before. We kept our hope as we struggled through lows, fought to overcome increasing case counts, and persevered against all odds to make India polio-free.