Children carrying their siblings to the vaccination booth in Gorakhpur.
By Kulsum Mustafa
Gorakhpur, May 26: For the diminutive five year old Mohd Shafi it may have appeared as yet another joyful piggyback ride by his ever-indulgent older sister Fatima, but for the latter, the journey to the vaccination booth was one with a deeper purpose. Still reeling under the trauma of having lost her favourite brother Shahabuddin last year to the Japanese Encephalitis (JE), Fatima did not want to miss the opportunity of protecting her other siblings and herself against this killer disease by getting the JE vaccine shot.
Gorakhpur district, in Uttar Pradesh (UP), which bore the brunt of the JE epidemic in 2005 and lost around 1,472 innocent lives has many such Fatimas. It has been selected as one of the five districts in UP where the world’s largest vaccination drive was launched on 15 May 2006 by the Government of India to eradicate JE or brain fever, as it is commonly known. Come May 31, Gorakhpur division expects to have vaccinated 4.6 million children.In India, this 30-year old disease that usually strikes between July to October is region (Eastern UP) and age (1-15 years) specific, but has no sex discrimination. The virus, which harbours in pigs, is transmitted by female culex mosquito. High fever, pain, fits, vomiting and unconsciousness are signs of this dreaded disease that has a high morbidity and mortality rate. Although Eastern UP has been in the grip of this disease for the past 30 years, it unleashed its full fury last year leaving thousands of children dead.
Considering the gravity of the situation, this year the Government launched an intense vaccination drive in seven high-risk Eastern UP districts – Gorakhpur, Deoria, Kushinagar, Maharajganj, Sant Kabirnagar, Siddhatha Nagar and Lakhimpur Kheri.
Shabana Khan is a primary school teacher and a volunteer for this campaign at the Chaudhury Public Girls’ High School in Rasoolpur, which is an urban vaccination centre just six km from the city having 75 per cent Muslim population. In the past few weeks, Shabana has gone door to door campaigning for JE vaccination. Having lost her husband in the Gujarat riots five years back, Shabana had to flee Ahemadabad to find succor at her parent’s home in Gorakhpur. She was just 19 then and her two daughters were one and three when she lost her husband. Shabana still carries the scars of the tragedy but tries hard to forget the painful past.
“Working amidst these children I experience a sense of relief and satisfaction. I feel I am saving lives and that I feel is the greatest worship,” she says, the painful lines on her face relaxing a bit, even if temporarily.
2-year Kavita in her mother's arms. She miraculously survived the JE scourge last year which claimed the lives of 1,472 children in Gorakhpur division.
In a rural vaccination centre in Gola, some 60 km from the city, there is an air of festivity. Banners and wall-posters announce the JE campaign. There are scores of child campaigners here. Eleven years old Salman and nine year Hidayat Husain even proudly display their names written on paper and pinned to their shirt pockets. They distribute JE publicity material and, in between, one can see them play a quick game or marbles.
Just a little distance away is the home of a ‘miracle survivor.” A pair of two bright large eyes peer at us: Kavita celebrated her second birthday just a week back. It is hard to believe that last year around this time she was struck by JE and virtually on her death bed. Her poor family borrowed money and took her for treatment to New Delhi and, by God’s grace, Kavita not only escaped death but also any disability. Statistics show that 70 per cent of those affected by JE either die or suffer permanent neurogical disability.
Clutching Kavita to her bosom, her mother Bindu tells us that she was one of the first to get Kavita and her other two children, four year Nikita and six year old Ankit, vaccinated. She did not want to re-live the nightmare.
For the divisional commissioner, Dr Mool Chand Yadav, this campaign means more then any developmental achievement. “This is a great pre-emptive measure. I am happy that our children will be wearing a protective armour two months before the incidence of JE starts in July,” he says.
According to Dr Yadav the total district machinery has been put behind the programme which, he stresses, has great public support.
UNICEF and WHO are providing technical support to the Government of India in the implementation of this drive. UNICEF has also deployed staff extensively on field to assist the Government’s herculean task, for which the latter has been most appreciative.
“While controlling mosquitoes and segregating, slaughtering or vaccinating of pigs can control JE, this is neither practical nor cheap. Vaccination of the vulnerable group - 1 to 15 year olds - is the only effective and long-term control measure against JE,” asserts Dr Vikas Bhatia, APO, Immunisation, UNICEF.
“As a precautionary measure each booth supervisor has also been asked to keep adequate supply of medicines for any adverse allergic reaction. Besides, instructions have been given and periodic checks made to ensure the maintenance of the cold-pack, cold chain and auto-disable syringes,” informs Dr Abhay Saraf, APO, Immunization, UNICEF.
It certainly seems that Gorakhpur has taken the first definite step towards the control of JE.