An orthodox Muslim woman from a remote village of Oorakam in Malappuram district has become a torchbearer of the district's campaign for pulse polio immunisation. In spite of stiff resistance from various pockets to immunisation programmes of the health department, this woman has been leading the pulse polio drive in her village ever since the country launched the project in 1995.

Endearingly called Mariyatha by the local people as well as the health authorities, Mariyumma M.K. is known as the ambassador of pulse polio. Despite her lack of formal education, the ability of this 59-year-old woman in convincing the people of the importance of giving pulse polio has been well appreciated.

She has made a clarion call to the people of Malappuram to shed their fears and join the move to lift India to polio-free status. A large number of people in this Muslim-dominated district continue to resist immunisation, including pulse polio vaccination, owing to misconceptions and their social setup.

The last polio case reported in Kerala was from Malappuram district. Even when the Kondotty polio case reported 12 years ago remains a blot for the district, the resistance of a section of the people has been worrying the authorities.

“If at all there is any chance for a polio case to be reported in the State, that will certainly be in Malappuram,” said Rose Mary, District Reproductive and Child Health Officer, and K. Sakeena, District Medical Officer.

The entire country is looking up to Malappuram. The World Health Organisation, too, is reported to have told its officials in India to keep a tab on Malappuram.

“We are working day in and day out to breach the pockets of resistance. We are trying to garner the support of all opinion leaders, including community leaders to reach out to the people,” said Dr. Sakeena. “This is where the efforts of people like Ms. Mariyatha have to be appreciated,” she said.

Widowed at a young age, Mariyatha has been living alone and finds joy in helping at an anganwadi functioning next to her tiny house. She says it was her association with anganwadi that awakened the social consciousness within her.

She has not seen a polio-stricken person. Yet she knows how debilitating that disease can be.

“Every one of us has the responsibility to wipe out polio from the face of the planet,” she told The Hindu.

She acquired polio awareness by attending classes and seminars. She has been trying her best since 1995 to reach out to the maximum number of households with the message of pulse polio. She says she missed only one year when she went to Makkah on the Haj pilgrimage.

Taking part in the drive is like performing a noble deed for Mariyatha. “I don't care who resists. My mission is to convince the people, and save our children from the deadly polio virus. This is one of the noblest deeds we can do,” she said. Mariyatha wants Muslim women to come forward to lift the district in its immunisation coverage.

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