By Anupam Srivastava
BAHRAICH (Uttar Pradesh): Ghazi Baba has as many ways of granting wishes as people have of asking. Those who have asked for children have got them; those looking for healing have been healed. As people return to thank him at his mazar (tomb) during the month-long mela (fair), they are joined by pilgrims who have a wish to make. “Ghazi Baba Zindabad” – the slogan fills the air with the collective energy of thousands of people. Soon after, a voice crackles on the public address system. “The management of the dargah requests that your children below five years are vaccinated against polio.” The word is followed as vaccinators – many of them from the Muslim community – to cater to predominantly Muslim pilgrims –vaccinate child after child. Nearly 150,000 children are vaccinated every year during the one-month mela (fair).
Estimates put the number of people coming to Bahraich during the one-month long fair at more than three million – a very large number for a small district town with 200,000 population. The town is transformed into a residential camp with tents and make-shift shelters. Many of the pilgrims have with them their children who share this accommodation on the floor of the dargah campus or somewhere close by, making do with the minimal civic services that are available. For the partners in the polio eradication programme, the vulnerability of children came to light when Bahraich reported 52 polio cases during the 2002 outbreak. Most of the cases were traced back to the mela. A vaccination strategy was immediately put in place.
Medical officer Dr. Nizamuddin says that the vaccination drive during the mela is an intensive affair. Over 25 two-person teams are located at various points. There are three kinds of teams – the entry point teams, the fixed booth teams and the mobile teams. The three last days of the week – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – attract the largest numbers, and the number of teams increase on these days.
With the dargah management endorsing vaccination against polio, there is little room for doubt. Vaccinators Mumtaz Begum and Nilofar Bano posted at the dargah gate find parents to be willing to get their children vaccinated. “When parents come to know about polio cases having been reported here, they understand the seriousness of our efforts,” says Mumtaz.
The Surveillance Medical Officer of the National Polio Surveillance Project, WHO, Dr. Shruti Sharma says that people who have “a lot of faith” come to the mela at Bahraich. “If they find that vaccination has the approval of religious leaders and the dargah authorities, they are more eager to vaccinate. Dargah management committee’s Rizvi saheb says since 2003 the immunisation drive has been carried out whole-heartedly. “We do feel the need to do this is great, considering this town has so many visitors during this one month,” he says.
The special immunisation drives have made a difference. After the outbreak in 2002, Bahraich remained polio-free for the next three years. During the 2006 outbreak in Uttar Pradesh, Bahraich got 16 cases. “The numbers could have been higher had it not been for the special immunisation drive,” says Michael Galway, Programme Communication Chief, UNICEF India. UNICEF supported the drive from the planning stage and with IEC material and social mobilisation support.
As they play on the bed-sheet after mundan – the head shaving ceremony – the two sons of pilgrims Prabha and Somnath will spend many days in Bahraich. “These children were granted to us as a result of the prayers we offered to Ghazi Baba,” says their father Somnath. The children show their little fingers as evidence of having been vaccinated. “We can now be assured that they will be safe,” says Prabha, their mother.