District 1010’s  latest contribution to National Immunisations Day (NID) in India

In February 2012, 53 Rotarians and family members from across Great Britain travelled to India, to take part in the latest mass national immunisation of children against polio.  

Following an evening briefing session and dinner organised by the local Rotarians, part of the group remained to work on the NID in Delhi, whilst on the morning of 18th twenty one of us travelled the 4 hour bus journey to Karnal, an area 123 km north of Delhi.   At the time of the 2001 census Karnal had around 211,000 residents and from what we saw appeared to be a very mixed economy, of substantial urban industry with extended surrounding agricultural areas.   D1010 was well represented by Sylvia Donaldson and Alan Constable, with his wife Irene from Rotary Club  St Andrews and Sheena Clarke from  Rotary  Club Oldmeldrum,  along with her sister Linda Greig.  While for most of the group this was their first experience of participating in a NID, one or two had volunteered previously, with  some  having returned several times.

On the afternoon of the 18th along with Rotarians from Rotary Club Karnal Midtown and boys from a local primary school,  we paraded through the streets of Karnal to advertise the immunisation  day.  The boys were lively and full of fun and by blowing loudly on whistles and calling out to one another they made sure everyone we passed became aware of our presence. The yellow banners and our bright yellow tee-shirts with matching hats advertised that we were Rotarians, there to support the eradication of polio.    We only narrowly missed bumping into the stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables at the side of the road as motorbikes and auto-rickshaws came flying past us tooting their horns...a very lively if at times somewhat chaotic event.

After the official opening ceremony on the morning of the 19th, our group, along with Karnal  Rotarians and their families and members of the Inner  Wheel,  set off in small groups to one of the 300 or so  immunisation booths  set up across the town.  The booths were in halls, schools, places of worship and even peoples’ gardens, identifiable by large yellow banners with the date in large red letters also depicting the image of a child receiving the vaccine.

At each booth we distributed the vaccine, marked the children’s pinkie, to show they had been immunised. They, and any other children who were around, were then given one of the hundreds of small gifts, such as pens, toothbrushes or balloons, we had been asked to bring with us.   Often the person bringing the young child were siblings not much older that the under 5s, who were the target group.

We had been told that in order to organise one NID across the whole of India there was a need for 700,000 booths, 1,700 teams, 155,000 vehicles including cars, motorbikes, boats, elephants – whatever was necessary to transport the teams and 2 million ice bags, required to keep the vaccine at the right temperature.   All this is essential to achieve the aim of immunising 172 million children: a huge logistical operation which as far as we could tell ran very smoothly.  Thanks to the amount of largely voluntary human effort , to vaccinate a child costs just 28p.

The following morning before we headed back to Delhi, our group was asked to do some follow-up checks, to identify children who had not yet been vaccinated.   After visiting one itinerant workers’ campsite, some of our group joined house-to-house visits along with local health workers.  The remainder of the group visited other campsites around the town.

To the group’s surprise, the House to House visit was to ensure the wealthier families children were also immunised, as they were unprepared to attend the public booths along with the majority of people. Even if they had no small children, they were very eager to invite the group into their homes and offer hospitality, presumably as a mark of their success. At times, the servants came running after the group, having heard the health workers calls at the door, clutching a small child and eager for the immunisation. Each household had chalk marks scribbled on their doors or gate posts, as evidence of the visit, stating the date and number  of children immunised .

The campsites we visited  were where families from across India were living, having come to Karnal  looking for work.  The families had gathered at these sites, where they pitched makeshift shelters.   The children at the first camp were lively and happy to see us, especially when they were given one or two of the small gifts.  We scanned the fingers of all the children who appeared to be under five years of age to check to see if they had a “purple pinkie” and if not, they were given a dose of vaccine.  Despite the apparent lack of even basic facilities, including access to water, the camp was relatively well organised in terms of having a reasonably structured layout and loosely defined, litter free paths leading through and between the tents.   Despite Karnal having several schools and colleges, we were advised that the children in the camps generally did not go to school. We found that some of the children had no idea how to hold a pencil, let alone make a mark of any kind with it.

At one of the other camps there was a decidedly different atmosphere, where the children were initially much more subdued, however the sight of a bag of gifts soon had them more animated and interested to see what we had brought.   The overall impression of this camp was of a group of families, with nothing more than basic shelter and where the children were even more unkempt than the other places.   

It wasn’t, however, all work for us. We were able to spend time getting to know fellow Rotarians and their families, from both Britain and India. We enjoyed some excellent hospitality in Karnal and, perhaps  more importantly, had the real privilege of getting to meet  many lovely children.   

Taking part in the polio NID  provided us with a wealth of  diverse experiences that  we would never have had  as part of ordinary tourist travel.   The people we met, the places we saw, and the knowledge that we played a small part in the eradication of polio  all added  up to make the  trip an amazing  experience.     The opportunity to get involved in future NIDs  is  highly recommended to fellow Rotarians and their families.  The only skills required are a willingness to get involved and the ability to adopt a flexible approach to managing change.

Sheena Clarke, RC of Oldmeldrum