Rotarians in IndiaMar 05, 2015 12:59PM ● By Donia Moore
Part of the team at Unicef.
by Donia Moore
India is an amazingly ancient, modern country. I recently represented the San Clemente Sunrise Rotary Club and Rotary International there at an annual worldwide polio immunization project. Polio Plus National Immunization Day’s goal is to eliminate polio from the world. Bill and Melinda Gates have joined RI in contributing over a billion dollars to the project, with the result that polio has vanished from most of the world. Only recently has it come under a measure of control in India. Still alive and active in nearby Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, our Indian friends reminded us that in Central Asia, polio is only a plane ride away among a very transient population.
Sixteen Rotarians came from California. I was the only Rotarian from Orange County. We considered ourselves well informed since we had watched a brief although effective orientation video before our departure. Most of us had never seen the effects of polio. Our hearts and minds were moved by that video and so, armed with the belief that “we” were “winning” the battle, off we went under the leadership of a Rotarian who had made this trip for the last 17 years. We were in the best of hands for an introduction to a culture many of us had only seen through National Geographic’s eyes.
No army travels without provisions so we were introduced to Indian foods at lunch during the orientation. I had only ever eaten Naan from Trader Joe’s frozen food case (a type of Indian bread similar to pita bread), tandoori chicken from a restaurant, and firey curry prepared by an Indian friend. What followed our 3am arrival in Delhi were 11 days of highly spiced, mostly vegetarian, Indian food. The same dishes were served for breakfast, lunch and dinner with plenty of snacks and tea in between. Usually affected by highly spiced food, I led off each morning with a two-tablet dose of Pepto Bismol, and staved off the digestive problems my teammates suffered.
We landed in Delhi, capital of the Republic of India. We first-time visitors were assaulted by an explosion of smells, sights and sounds – more reminders than anywhere else on earth that we were “not in Kansas, anymore...” The ancient scents of cardamom, ginger and pepper propelled their way into memories as they have since the beginning of history. The flashing kaleidoscope of colorful silk saris whirled by in a maelstrom of movement on weaving motorbikes, bicycles, human powered rickshaws, water buffalo pulling carts and horn honking cars and trucks on roads with two actual lanes for traffic serving as five-lane highways for all forms of transportation, including pedestrians.
We met with project managers and officials at the World Health Organization and UNICEF headquarters in Delhi, where we received detailed overviews of the Polio Plus project in India, then divided into teams of four. “My” team departed in a small car with our enthusiastic Nepalese driver to the northern “village” of Bijnor (150,000 population, seven Rotary Clubs!) in the District of Bijnor near the Nepal border. We crossed over the revered Ganges River and re-learned our first Indian History lesson. We’d all called it by the wrong name all our lives. The correct name is the “River Ganga”. The suffix “ji”, a sign of respect in Hindi, is often added on to a name or title. As the Ganga is considered a living, flat god and is respected as the giver of life, “ji” is the appropriate ending. When the British arrived in India, a misunderstood name became the “Ganges River”. It is so called to this day by everyone but Indian scholars.
Housed with Indian Rotarians, we enjoyed an opportunity to experience daily Indian life as few tourists ever do in hotels. After a typical breakfast with the host family of darjeeling tea (straight from the province of Darjeeling), dahl, curds, hard boiled eggs and biscuits (cookies, actually), we set out to visit the District Polio Headquarters and to meet the District Magistrate and Chief Medical Officer. We discovered that the lack of computers necessitated extensive organization to develop a system of tracking which children had been immunized in this huge and mobil population. Charts were notated manually by trained government health workers at each polio vaccination site, and painted on doors of each house visited. As multiple families lived behind each door, most with children and most illiterate, the ingenius system consisted of painting on the doors: the numbered address; the number of children vaccinated; if parents refused the vaccine; and an arrow pointing to the next house, if all inside had been vaccinated. To ensure there was no confusion, all vaccinated children had their left hand pinky fingernails colored with indelible purple Sharpie pens. If a family refused to have a child immunized, peer pressure from concerned neighbors often prevailed.
“One, two, Polio’s through!” was chanted everywhere. It only takes two drops of the vaccine to help guard the true treasures of India – the children. For many years here, polio killed or crippled thousands of them. The enormous, constant international effort coordinated by RI, WHO, and UNICEF has almost wiped out the polio virus. WHO has designated a three-year period milestone for countries to be considered polio-free. In India, it has been two-and-a-half years since the last new polio case. Every year, these organizations coordinate the NID throughout the world to keep it so. On this day, in every city, town and rural village, in countries where polio is active, every known home is visited and the “two drops” dosage is given to every child from newborn to five-years-old.
After 5,000 years, Indian society is adept at absorbing a vast diversity of people and cultures.When most people travel, they compare experiences, trying to establish a known entity as the basis for understanding an unknown entity. “This temple reminds me of that ruin” and so forth. In India, there is nothing that reminds you of anything but India. British strongholds have arched porticos covered with sacred Hindu characters. Soaring Arabic minarets have carved Hindu gods. Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, Catholic churches, American hotels and McDonalds all recognize Hindu deities and inscriptions. John Deere Tractors park next to teathered water buffalo carts. Proud privileged women bundled in beautiful hand-woven silk pashminas pass proud, hardworking women bundled in heavy loads of hand-harvested sugar cane.
In this atmosphere of differences, one idea unites the parents of India with the parents of the world: love for their children and desire to protect them from harm as they grow to adulthood. It’s why I journeyed over 8,000 miles to volunteer for India’s NID. I, too, am a parent and polio still harms children.
The polio bacteria thrives in unsanitary conditions in the world’s poorest countries such as India. In America, a child receives an initial vaccine dose and a booster. In countries that suffer from unhealthful conditions, a child needs five or six vaccine doses. Dysentery prevents the vaccine from remaining in a child’s system to develop antibodies to fight off polio’s attack on the central nervous system. It’s the only way to prevent the horrible disfiguration we saw when we visited child victims in hospitals.
When each hectic day ended, we were exhausted but uplifted by having even a small part in this life-giving effort for these beautiful children. Oh, we did see the Taj Mahal on our way back to Delhi – it’s lovely, of course, but it’s the vision of the children who met us with friendship, curiosity and hope that will remain in my heart.
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