‘To be done with it is really unbelievable and worth something’

If Bill Gates is talking about India’s achievement in making the country polio-free at the World Economic Forum at Davos, his wife is here saying, “To be done with it (polio) is really unbelievable and worth something.”

“Two years free of polio, India is quite something when we think of the scepticism of 2000. It strengthens the confidence that change can happen in other things in the health sector like surveillance, microplanning and routine immunisation. This is the accomplishment Bill will also highlight at Davos,” Melinda Gates told a select group of journalists here on Friday.

On resistance to inclusion of pentavalent vaccine in the routine immunisation programme, Ms. Gates said, “It happens across the countries that negative and opposing voices get more space. I think we need to get out more positive stories on vaccines.”

Speaking from her experience in Bihar, she said women there did realise that fewer children were dying because they were vaccine protected than was the case a couple of generations ago. “A grandmother knows how many of her children had died of childhood diseases and how fewer of her grandchildren are dying because they are immunised.” Ms. Gates has called for a groundswell of positive stories that could create a demand for vaccines.

“We have seen with HIV/AIDS that if we work upfront on prevention of a disease, we do succeed,” she said, citing the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s experience in dealing with HIV/AIDS in India through the Avahan programme, which was its largest investment anywhere.

The Foundation was now focussing on tackling tuberculosis and runs several projects in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to improve the lives of women and newborns. “We are working on TB because there are about two million cases reported every year and the focus is on diagnostics, surveillance and on new drugs including rolling out a vaccine.” The Foundation works with the government under the Revised National TB Control Programme.

This is in addition to the malaria eradication programme and childhood diseases. The Foundation “would like to see the government do something about these and it (Foundation) has a role to play.” Its Indian office has grown substantially since it started the Avahan programme here. “India is the only country in the world that has something going on in every sector of the Foundation except education.”

Impressive coordination

The Foundation is running a programme in eight Bihar districts focussing on mother and child health. Ms. Gates said she was impressed with the coordination among auxiliary nurse midwifes, anganwadi workers and accredited social health activists (ASHA) that had helped in improving infant mortality rates unlike in earlier years, when all the three served the same village but lacked coordination. “Now they support each other and plan together. ASHAs are much more confident in their job.”