Page last updated at 00:28 GMT, Sunday, 22 November 2009

Presenter Konnie Huq joins Indian campaign to end polio

By Konnie Huq
TV presenter

Konnie Huq gives polio vacine to child
Konnie Huq takes part in the polio immunisation drive in India

Uttar Pradesh in northern India has a population of more than 190 million and the world's highest concentration of polio infection.

This is one of the final frontiers where the war against polio is being fought.

This crippling disease is now endemic in just four countries - India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

In 1985 Rotary International spearheaded the campaign to eradicate polio and pledged to make sure all the world's children would be immunised against the disease.

This has meant cases have been cut by a staggering 99% since then.

But there is still 1% to go and so a huge army of volunteers have been mobilised to help and take part in the final push to rid the world of Polio.

I joined 86 British Rotarians on a trip to India to see Rotary's Thanks for Life/End Polio Now campaign in action as more than 65 million children in two northern Indian states under the age of five were to be targeted for immunisation against polio in just two days.

'Still endemic'

The campaign was to be focused in Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar - the only two states left in India where the disease is still endemic.

Two million children in the Indian capital, Delhi, were also to be immunised, a process which has to be repeated every few weeks to ensure infallibility.

One problem with polio is that, although crippling and debilitating, the disease is not life threatening

I started my two day polio immunisation drive in the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, at a particularly significant place - the Islamic Centre.

Until recently, 70% of the cases of polio were found to be affecting this minority community in UP because of unsubstantiated fears that the drops were part of a Western plot to make Muslims infertile in an attempt to control the Islamic population.

One rumour even says that this conspiracy theory was started because the medical supplies boxes had been covered in the word STERILE!

Rotarian Ajay Saxena, member of Rotary International's India National Polio Plus Committee, was instrumental in getting Muslim leaders together and as a result, the immunisation campaign has been backed by the clerics and the rates of polio among the Muslim community have dropped to 30%.


Fighting polio in India's slums

While sitting down for a cup of tea at the Islamic Centre, with Maulana Khalid Rasheed, general secretary of the Islamic Centre of India, he told me: "The thing is that about five years ago there were a number of misconceptions prevailing in the Muslim community that the polio vaccination was a conspiracy of the foreign powers to make the Muslims infertile or impotent so that the numbers of Muslims in India could not be increased.

"We have been able to tell the Muslim community that the polio immunisation has nothing to do with any type of conspiracy. It is only to bring an end to polio in India.

"And that there is no such thing as a conspiracy as far as this vaccination is concerned and we have been successful in removing that misconception."

Administering vaccine

Soon the time came for me to administer the drops to children myself.

A potentially life-saving experience - just two drops can help stop a child being crippled by polio.

Some 2,700 booths had been situated in and around the streets of Lucknow giving out the vaccine.

The British Rotarians also played their full part in administering drops and helping to get parents out to the booths with their young ones.

Konnie Huq with children in India
The immunisation drive targeted two northern Indian states

At one polio booth I met Saleem - a 17-year-old polio sufferer - not lucky enough to receive the polio drops when he was a child.

Saleem is now an orphan as his parents died six months ago.

He is also homeless, living on the streets, existing hand to mouth.

He believes strongly that the immunisation drops are important.

One problem with polio is that, although crippling and debilitating, the disease is not life threatening. This means that hospitals see it as a low priority and more often than not will not treat it.

Saleem was told when he was younger that he would be treatable and able to walk again, but because of the lack of care on offer, he cannot walk and relies on a pair of old crutches he managed to obtain through a charity.

Disability burden

In a country like India, a disability means that you cannot work to earn money and so have to rely on handouts and begging.

Moreover poor families often can't cope with the financial and physical burden of a crippled child so are sometimes forced to abandon them.

Since Rotary pledged in 1985 to immunise all the world's children against polio, it has been working with the World Health Organization, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to do just that.

Thanks to the work of Rotary more than two billion children have been immunised against polio worldwide.

As long as one case of polio remains in the world - no child is safe from this deadly disease

In India, the government has pledged a further $657m to immunise the country's children against polio over the next three years.

Joining in the campaign now is Microsoft Founder Bill Gates who through his charity, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has donated $355m to Rotary to help in the battle to eradicate polio.

The immunisation campaign means no child is missed and that includes going to the slums.

Polio victims are often from poorer backgrounds as infection occurs through contact with the faeces of a polio sufferer.

Naturally insanitary conditions and poor hygiene are big contributors to the disease.

In Delhi, I accompanied health visitors and Rotarians to immunise children in an unbelievably cramped slum where 1,000 people live in low level shacks making a living sifting through rubbish to find anything that could be recyclable.

The stench and squalor was like nothing I have seen, although I have visited numerous shanty town and slum areas before.

These people are living, eating and sleeping on a rubbish tip, in and among decay, debris and flies. Flies everywhere.

Last few miles

For the victims of polio there is some hope here though.

Although public hospitals are reluctant to treat the disease and private hospitals make no money from the poor people affected by the disease, progress is being made in Delhi's oldest hospital, St Stephen's, where there is a dedicated polio ward.

Head of the department of orthopaedics, Dr Mathew Varghese, said that improvements in water and sanitation, a key factor, meant the number of child polio cases they were seeing was dropping.

But as long as one case of polio remains in the world - no child is safe from this deadly disease.

There were about 500 new cases a day in India more than 20 years ago - now there are only about 500 a year, so the battle is being won.

So how near is a polio free India and a polio free world?

Deepak Kapur, chairman of Rotary's India National Polioplus Committee told me: "At the beginning of the programme, there was no place in India that was polio free.

"Now, more than 99% of the job has been done but there is still a long way to go because the last few miles are the most difficult.

"And I expect since the virus is hiding in these last bastions, it won't be long before we actually win.

"Although I am not a soothsayer, I think that in 2011, we should be able to do it."

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