Two years ago, this village in Howrah district made headlines when one-and-a-half-year-old Rukhsar Khatoon contracted polio. A year later Rukhsar shot to even greater fame when it was revealed that she was the last reported case of wild polio in the country for an entire year – a milestone that took India off the World Health Organisation’s list of polio-endemic countries.
Rukhsar has gone on to become the face of the campaign to eradicate polio in Sahapara village if not the whole country, but another two-year-old Rukhsar, who lives less than 500 metres away, has never been given the oral polio vaccine; her grandmother will not allow it.
“I have seen with my own eyes that my son became violently sick when he was given the polio vaccine. How can allow any other children in my family to suffer,” asked Rukhiya Bibi on Wednesday.
Before polio struck the locality, there were about 30 families who refused the vaccination. As news of Rukhsar’s affliction spread in Sahapara village, many of those who had been resisting all these years, changed their minds, said Sabana Khatoon, a United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) volunteer who works in the polio eradication programme in Sahapara village.
The family of Rukhiya Bibi is among the two that still hold out in the area where Sabana Khatoon works while there are eight families in all in Sahapara village who will not allow their children to be vaccinated.
Rukhiya Bibi is convinced that if her grandchildren are administered the vaccine, they are sure to come to harm. Describing vividly the images of her son Surpan, who had become sick when he was given the vaccine at least five years ago, she emphatically rules out the same fate for her grandchildren – two-year-old Rukhsar and ten-month-old Noorbina.
“Surpan was gripped with fever. His limbs, his abdomen, his whole body had swollen up. I will not allow my granddaughter to suffer that,” she said, dismissing all arguments about allergic reactions or any other cause for his ailment.
Asked about the risk that her granddaughters may contract polio, Rukhiya Bibi recounted: “There was that child, who lived in the house across the canal. He died a day after he was given the vaccine. Can I take that risk?”