Meerut, Jan 24 - From 26 cases of polio in 2009 to none align="left"last year, Meerut district is a mirror of the cheering development taking place in polio-endemic Uttar Pradesh.
And a key role played in this success story is by the influencers or volunteers who go from house to house to overcome initial resistance, especially in Muslim-dominated areas, to the polio vaccine.
Influencers could be local religious leaders, doctors, sometimes even quacks, teachers, ration dealers who have been roped in by the authorities in the state to popularise the polio immunization programme.
They were enrolled in the polio immunisation programme four to five years ago realising the resistance to polio vaccine from the minority community in some districts of Uttar Pradesh, including Meerut. These influencers play a key link between the authorities and the beneficiary.
Although it was not an easy task for them to convince people to get their children immunised, they took up the challenge and have proved successful in bringing a majority of the children to polio booths. The polio infection in Meerut was down to zero last year against 26 cases in 2009.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are two polio-endemic states in the country. Polio is a crippling disease that affects children under five.
"Some years back there was so much resistance to polio vaccine that once I received life threats from a family. But now there has been so much progress that people themselves bring their children for polio immunisation," Shahabuddin Delhiwale, an influencer in the Zakir Colony area, told IANS.
The influencers are not paid by the authorities and they volunteer their services. Some of them even organise polio drop booths at their homes or shops and distribute goodies to attract children.
"Earlier people used to shut the door on our faces and many a time we were abused for asking them to immunise their children. But that did not affect us and we regularly kept visiting them, briefing about the benefits of immunisation. Things have improved a lot now and the same people now respect us and come to us with all their problems," said Razia Khatun, a community mobiliser.
According to Unicef, these influencers have played a key role in bringing down the rate of infection from 602 cases in 2009 to 10 cases last year in Uttar Pradesh. The state has not reported any P1 cases of polio last year. P1 is the more virulent polio virus than P3.
"There were some misconceptions in society, especially among Muslims, that the polio vaccine will make their child impotent. Despite trying very hard to convince them that the vaccine is very safe and there are no side effects, we were not able to immunize all the children here. We then decided to take help of people from the same community who can influence them and it worked wonders," said Govind Singh, sub-regional coordinator, Unicef, Social Mobilisation Network (SMNet).
India along with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are four polio-endemic countries in the world.
There are two types of polio virus - P1 and P 3 - prevalent in India. The transmission of most dangerous P1, which caused 95 percent of polio in India till 2006, was at record low level in 2010. Uttar Pradesh, the most endemic state and the epicenter of most polio outbreaks in the country, has not reported any P1 since November 2009. (IANS)