The month-long Dargah Sharif Mela (religious fair) at the shrine of Saiyed Masood Ghazi in the district Bahraich of Uttar Pradesh is one of the largest religious congregations in India with close to one million pilgrims attending every year. Children under the age of five comprise a significant percentage of those attending.
A unique aspect of this Mela is the use of the religious platform to immunise children and raise awareness on polio among people coming from remote areas of the state. Polio awareness is the only non-religious activity at the shrine supported by the Dargah Committee.
UNICEF supports the district health department and Dargah Committee to ensure that every child coming to the Mela is immunized and large scale awareness about the polio prevention is raised.
Two weeks into the festival, over 75,000 children have been immunized. In 2009, close to 170,000 children were immunized at the Mela.
Just before the Mela commences, special vaccinator teams are positioned at strategic entry points into the city, such as the railway stations and bus stands. Banners are displayed across the city and at the shrine. Mobile teams are positioned at places of interest for pilgrims.
A polio team, easily recognisable from its sunshine yellow aprons and caps, position themselves at the entrance of the shrine. Vaccinators spend time convincing mothers of the need to immunize children against polio.
In addition, the public address system at the Dargah urges pilgrims to immunise their children. The ailaan (appeal) is made about 20 times a day emphasizing that OPV (oral polio vaccine) is supported by ulemas or religious heads.
“Give your child polio drops,” the vaccinator at the gate urges pilgrims she sees holding a baby. By noon, she has immunized over 60 children. Another 20 were missed, she says. “Their parents had refused.”
According to the district Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Hari Prasad, the intervention began in 2003 after 36 cases in just over two months were reported following the Mela. The district had been polio-free for three years and the virus subtype was traced to districts as far as Shahjahanpur and even from Mumbai.
Sanitation and garbage disposal remain critical issues for prevention of an epidemic outbreak. Also, given that the onset of monsoon (seasonal rains), considered the peak season for polio virus to spread, is just after the Mela, the polio programme does not want to take any chances.
Over the years, UNICEF has strategically reached out to underserved groups. According to UNICEF’s Nizamuddin Ahmed, the polio programme in Uttar Pradesh now has support from some of the most influential religious leaders and institutions across the state and country