Three men who spearheaded the movement to start mass vaccination of children

At the Polio Summit in New Delhi this weekend, Rotarians would be celebrating the country's first polio-free year. They form the backbone of a movement that has resulted in polio immunisation programme becoming a routine in every State.

Though the movement began as an earnest effort of a few well-meaning members of the Rotary Club of Madras, their unwavering confidence in themselves and the government has resulted in generations of children walking tall and proud.

The war to annihilate polio in the country began on September 19, 1979, when an innocuous question from Vellore-based Rotarian Jacob John at a press conference resulted in a commitment to raise funds to provide vaccines for measles from Kenneth Hobbs, a Rotarian from Canada.

Srikrishna Laxman Chitale, one of the three Rotarians to spearhead the measles vaccine programme in the country, says Rotarians had been conducting immunisation camps in schools for several years. In Coimbatore, Rotarian S. Krishnaswami single-handedly carried out a similar exercise with vaccines received from Denmark.

Dr. Hobbs' promise launched a health revolution. “The 1979 event (where 64,000 vials of measles vaccines arrived in India from Canada), coincided with the golden jubilee of the Rotary Club of Madras and the International Year of the Child,” Mr. Chitale recalls. Between October 1980 and September 1982, 3.5 million doses of measles vaccine were shipped to Chennai (Madras).

While Air India transported the vaccines free of cost, the Tamil Nadu government officials facilitated the storage of vaccines at the King Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy. Between 1980 and 1983, the State government doubled its health sub centres, ensuring that measles vaccines were available in villages and that children were immunised.

Buoyed by the success, Rotarians expanded the immunisation programme to include polio. At that time, the country had 110 million children to be vaccinated.

In 1984, when Rotary International formed the PolioPlus committee to wipe out the disease from the world, Tamil Nadu was the natural choice to participate in the new, expanded polio programme. The State government received a grant of $ 250,000 to upgrade its cold chain facilities to store polio vaccines.

On its part, the State government launched the Project of Annual National Day of Immunisation (PANDI) approach. H.V. Hande, the then State Health Minister, recalls: “When we were in the thick of the battle (against polio) in 1984-1985, about 1.5 lakh cases of polio were reported.” It was just a matter of time before the State's immunisation model was replicated across the country.

But, these Rotarians don't consider their job done, yet. They know it is necessary to educate every citizen on the need for vaccination. Even as Rotarians prepare to celebrate the victory over polio in New Delhi, they regret that measles is yet to be wiped out.

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R. SujathaJune 28, 2012