Eradicating Polio in India: Portraits

Public health workers have taken on the mission of vaccinating 170 million children under the age of five.

The public image of the polio campaign (formally known as the Global Polio Eradication Initiative or GPEI) is Bill Gates. He is the most famous of those involved, at least.

However, in polio-affected areas of India, the faces of the campaign are much more local. In a single immunization round, 2.5 million vaccinators will work hard to make sure that 170 million children under the age of five are vaccinated. Nearly 700,000 booths are set up nationwide. It is a massive effort. These images are of the faces behind the polio effort in Aligarh, one of the many affected towns in Uttar Pradesh, India.

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Public health is as much about medicine as it is about culture, GPEI has learned. So, local elders, and sometimes members of the local clergy, are given the title of "influencer." They accompany vaccinators or station themselves at vaccination booths. Their task is to convince parents that the vaccine is safe for the child to consume.


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In-transit vaccinators are stationed, naturally, in areas of transit. They're at railway stations, at bus depots, in the middle of chaotic markets, and at cross points in the city. This lady had a keen eye for a unmarked pinky -- the sign of an unvaccinated child. She will be stationed at her post throughout the immunization round.


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In the heart of Aligarh, in an area called Upper Kot, which is largely occupied by the Muslim community, a bazaar takes place daily. Stationed at the base of the main mosque, it's a busy area of activity. This health worker will be roaming the area from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., trying to spot unvaccinated children. Her yellow vest tells the shoppers that she's a polio vaccinator.


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Another influencer, who has been with the campaign for over five years. His motivation for working the polio booths? "I want children to be able to run around happily and freely," he told me in Hindi. He's been stationed with UNICEF health workers for the day. During the door-to-door activity, he will join the vaccinators as they navigate the maze-like communities.


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Many of the health workers in the polio campaign are quite young. For them, the daily wages (that can amount to anything around $1 to $2) are an allure. For some of the older health workers, such as this woman, the polio campaign has become a rooted part of life. She's been working polio booths for the past 15 years.


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This young vaccinator has been assigned to a polio booth in a predominantly Muslim section of the city. Given the mix of communities in northern India, GPEI accounts for Muslim populations by providing female vaccinators, signs written in Urdu, and members of the local ulema (clergy) who validate the vaccine.


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The polio "booth" is a rather generalized term. A booth can consist of a rickety table on a street corner or the patio of a clinic, as seen here. The sign is the telling point. These three health workers are reporting to Mr. Khan, the polio district coordinator, of the day's activities.


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Umar Muhammad Khan is an employee of the polio campaign. Overseeing the efforts in Aligarh for the past decade, Khan has been hired by the Polio Plus Committee in India to make sure that each National Immunization Day (and sub-NID) goes off without a hitch in his district.


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Older children play a big role in the campaign. As a marketing tool, they place on masks, run around the neighborhoods, and play in the streets, spreading the message: It's time to get your children vaccinated for polio.


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Two UNICEF health workers approach a Muslim household in the door-to-door campaign. The woman on the right, Khalida Sherwani, says that her job gives her an identity, and a feeling of importance in the community. Otherwise, she would just be sitting at home.


Presented by

Esha Chhabra is a journalist covering India's polio-eradication efforts on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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