GULERIA, India 18 May 2010 - Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates met last week with community workers in this small village in the eastern Indian state of Bihar, who told him about their efforts to convince families to get their children vaccinated against polio.
The 1,000-member strong Social Mobilization Network (SMNET) for Polio Eradication in Bihar, initiated by UNICEF, mobilizes mothers and caretakers to take OPV, the vaccine to prevent polio in children under five years of age. More than 70 per cent of the network is deployed in the 41 High Risk Areas mainly in the Kosi Region serving underserved communities.
Social Mobilization Coordinators told Gates how they work closely with community members and families to provide messages on the importance of OPV vaccination, using a mixture of activities and strategies, including mothers and community meetings.
During his visit, Gates showed a real sense of optimism in what he witnessed in Bihar. “The statistics are definitely improving. The government has a plan to improve health. In Bihar, the vaccination rates, which were as low as 11 per cent are now up by over 50 per cent. That’s been achieved really in only about four years. That’s a very rapid increase. There is a lot still to be done, but I think you are going to see health improve quite substantially,” he said.
The Polio Eradication Programme is led by the Government of India, with support from the spearheading partners--WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF – with significant contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation has provided over $25 million to the UNICEF-supported component of the Polio Programme in India to date. To end polio by 2012, the Foundation has recently committed an additional $250 million to the global Polio Eradication effort.
In Bihar, Gates was briefed on how the polio programme is being used as an entry point to plan and implement other public health interventions critical to polio eradication. Behaviours that will increase children’s immunity and reduce their susceptibility to the polio virus – such as improved sanitation practices, full immunization, exclusive breastfeeding, and using ORS and Zinc to prevent and manage diarrhea – are being promoted to enable the polio vaccine to function more efficiently.
SMNET personnel mobilize communities for the construction of toilets and hand washing practices in the persistent transmission blocks and ensure routine immunization sessions are attended by all eligible children. They are also being trained on how to provide advice on ORS and Zinc for diarrhoea management, and support mothers with exclusive breastfeeding.
“The Social Mobilization Network is now being used as a catalyst to promote a package of healthy behaviours that will provide extra protection against polio, in addition to polio vaccination,” said UNICEF’s Chief of Polio, Lieven Desomer.
Government Angawadi Workers and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) help to mobilize families for polio campaigns, routine immunization, tracking of unimmunized children and newborns and health and nutrition service follow-up.
The local self-government Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) play a prominent role ensuring ownership of development programmes in their communities. UNICEF provides technical support to the PRIs on polio prevention and routine immunization.
While interacting with the community,Gates chatted with a few mothers and requested to see their routine immunization cards. He also asked them on the type of services, information and mobilization received from the AWW and ASHA if they were satisfied.
Community workers were queried about the vaccine delivery process, incentive schemes, medical service facility, and payment of incentives to frontline workers.
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