India – long regarded as the most difficult place to end polio – has been polio-free for more than two years. This remarkable feat would not have been possible without the dedication of rural health workers to ensure that children everywhere receive the vaccine. As the face of the eradication effort on the ground, they are instrumental in mobilizing community support for immunization activities. But their impact extends well beyond just polio.
Polio vaccination activities can – and must – work in tandem with routine immunization systems that deliver other life-saving vaccines. To see how well that was progressing, in 2009 the Indian Academy of Pediatrics, Emory University and India’s National Polio Surveillance Project conducted a study of rural frontline health workers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, two of India’s traditional polio reservoirs and states in which routine immunization rates are notably low.
Beyond the value of face-to-face advocacy, the polio eradication effort opens the door for the delivery of all essential vaccines and health services in a number of other ways
The survey data offers promising evidence of the clear linkages between polio eradication activities and routine immunization. The majority of the health workers stated that polio immunization activities benefit the other health initiatives they carry out. 95% of those surveyed said that as they interact directly with families and explain the benefits of the polio vaccine to skeptical parents, they are able to increase acceptance of vaccines more broadly.
Beyond the value of face-to-face advocacy, the polio eradication effort opens the door for the delivery of all essential vaccines and health services in a number of other ways. For instance, the infrastructure and expertise that India established to keep polio vaccines cold as health workers transport them around the country have enabled the introduction of other vaccines that require a cold chain, including Hepatitis B and Japanese Encephalitis vaccines. In addition, new mapping technology is helping health workers reach children with a wide variety of health services
I have been involved with polio eradication efforts for the last 20 years and as a co-principal investigator for this study, I had a chance to interact with many health care workers who all had one thing in common: they believed polio eradication is possible and that the polio vaccine will help the communities they serve to eradicate polio. It is because of these health workers’ responses and enthusiasm that I continue to be part of the polio eradication initiative.
Seizing the unprecedented opportunity to complete polio eradication isn’t just about polio—it’s about building a system and cadre of health workers that will reach all children, including the most vulnerable, with the vaccines they deserve. I’m confident, based on 20 years of meeting these heroic health workers, that together we can finish the job.