How can we use communications to impact on the big global problems – like polio. We have the medicine to eradicate polio – it has disappeared from many countries. But ignorance, crowded modern cities, and a lack of infrastructure can make it difficult getting the message out about the cure. In this guest blog, Esha Chhabra writes about her experience in India where people, not technology, were used to beat the obstacle of ignorance.
The Power Of The Crowd by Esha Chhabra
Maybe it’s the water. Maybe it’s the sanitation. Maybe it’s the thousands of people living a crowded, urban life. Maybe it’s the indifferent politicians. Maybe it’s sheer fatigue of doing this for two decades and counting.
But those are just excuses. And, truthfully, they don’t match the data. Polio has been eradicated from 122 countries around the world and the number of cases has been reduced by 99 percent. Yet, four more countries are left, four more endemic nations: Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan — each with its own set of challenges.
Annually, Rotarians visit these nations, primarily India and Nigeria in past years due to safety concerns elsewhere, to take part in National Immunization Day — a concerted effort by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and Rotary, with the support of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. They circle the neighborhoods of cities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (states in northern India), talk with the local UNICEF workers (employed for a daily wage of 50 rupees) to acquire an update on the status of polio in those towns, vaccinate dozens of children at “polio booths” that range from the organized, well-staffed with polio paraphernalia to a signless, rickety wooden table holding just a single cold case of the vaccine.
The Rotarians don the role of ambassadors, representing their hometowns, states, and even the U.S., in many cases. With the help of translators, they answer questions from the local press who aren’t always satisfied with their responses, arguing that the program is ineffective, children are still coming down with polio and the money’s being wasted. These are seasoned journalists, well aware of India’s health problems, and have been on the polio beat for years.
The frustration goes beyond persistent journalists. In side conversations, local leaders leak their tensions as well; in whispers, they told me of corruption issues, noncompliant workers, endless sanitation problems.
Their troubles cannot be resolved. But there is one remedy: yuva (youth in Hindi).
And there’s no shortage of them.
In a college town, 100 kilometers outside of Delhi, there’s a university professor who runs a service program. His academic specialty is geology — no correlation to preventive diseases. Yet, he’s got an army of energized college students who’ve taken up the polio cause. They routinely go into neighborhoods on the periphery — forgotten and neglected. They face hostility. The poor have false notions about the polio vaccination. Some argue it’ll make their children impotent. Some feel it’s a western conspiracy. So, the students get fed sticks and stones. They’re urged to get out, go away.
But they come back, repeatedly.
That’s the beauty of the youths and that can be Rotary’s weapon in fighting this final battle against polio. Employ the youths. Enlist the support of people like myself — a recent graduate. Doesn’t matter if you look abroad or in your local communities, we’re all of the same breed — a bit restless, a bit fearless and determined to create change.
In the local area, we’ve got countless universities — the UCs, smaller community colleges, Pepperdine, California Lutheran University and many more. Talk to them. Invite them to your meetings. Mobilize them.
It’s about exposure. Dirty water, poor healthcare, unnecessary bureaucracy, shortage of funds don’t limit themselves to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in India.
These problems cross boundaries and manifest themselves in different visages. Educate someone on polio eradication and you’ve also given her an introductory lesson on development and governance. Plus, an experience in the field overrides any class discussion. That’s why it’s crucial. Polio is just the hook. Ultimately, it’s about the engaging youths in public (and global) issues.
This is bigger than polio. In fact, the PolioPlus program was named such because, after polio, the next deadly disease will be tackled. So, Rotary needs to expand its forces. And when that next phase happens, it’ll be this new, young face of Rotary International that will be at the forefront.
— Esha Chhabra is a recent Georgetown University graduate and a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar to the London School of Economics. She participated in the 2009 National Immunization Day in India.
This article originally appeared in the Ventura County Star