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Vaccine Hero: Sikha Patra

September 21, 2012

Vaccine heroes come in all forms – they can be community health workers, scientists, government or spiritual leaders, moms, dads, or volunteers.  A vaccine hero can be anyone, anywhere, who is helping kids get the vaccines they need. To shine a spotlight on this important work,  we are launching a new Vaccine Heroes series.

Sikha, 14, is a member of the Daredevils, a group of kids in a Kolkata (Calcutta) slum in India who work to collect health data and rally the community around important health issues like vaccines. The Daredevils are profiled in the upcoming documentary, The Revolutionary Optimists.  This group is part of Prayasam, a non-profit that began working with children to fight polio in Sikha’s community more than 15 years ago. Prayasam continues to empower children across Kolkata to become change agents to improve public health in their communities. Sikha is on the board of advisors of Prayasam. The Daredevils group has helped find children in some of the most difficult to reach areas of Kolkata so they can receive life-saving vaccines.

Here is her story…

I am Sikha Patra. I live in 2 Nehru Colony, in Kolkata. It is very dirty around our neighborhood, and it used to be even dirtier. The biggest problem in our community is the lack of awareness. My friends and I who work in our neighborhood to increase child health awareness know that to do any kind of awareness work in our neighborhood, you have to be persistent with the people.

Take our work on polio awareness. We know that the foremost right in the United Nations’ Children’s Rights Charter is the right to live. And besides food, clothing and shelter, children also need polio and other vaccinations. But that can only happen if the parents in the community understand that!

For many years, children in our Daredevils group have worked on polio here and have faced problems due to people’s lack of awareness. I first heard about the Daredevils from my friend Salim. Salim told me that this group was learning puppetry and comics. I was very interested so I went to a class with Salim where I saw the amazing work this group of other children in my community were doing to spread awareness about diseases like polio with puppets and paper megaphones.

Seven days before Polio Sunday, a day when the municipality sets up a temporary polio vaccination clinic, we’d go from house to house to inform the parents. Where the booth is, what time to go, all the information. We divided our neighborhood into ten blocks, and we would perform our puppet theater production about polio vaccination on each block. Sometimes, we’d make posters about how important it was to get the polio vaccine. Most of the people in our neighborhood are not educated, so we drew cartoon posters, so that everyone could understand it.    

Of course, before doing all of this, we would survey the neighborhood. We keep track of how many children and where they are in each block, and we put that data on a community map – to see which block has children that don’t go to the booth often, etc.. Then we strongly campaign in those specific blocks. So many times people have said unpleasant things about us – saying we didn’t know anything about polio. They said a lot of garbage about us to the people in the neighborhood. But even that didn’t slow us down a bit! Instead of listening to what people were saying, we just continued focusing on our work.

Still, on Polio Sundays we would find the booths almost empty. We used to feel so bad. It felt like all our hard work was wasted. Then we had an idea. We decided that we would go to each house on Polio Sunday and bring the children to the polio booth ourselves.

At first, we had a lot of difficulty bringing the children to the booth. Parents did not want to let their children go with us. So, we had to do a lot of work in the community to gain trust. When we first started our work, only 40-60 percent of parents brought their children to the booth – now that has increased to 90 percent!

However, this work was not accomplished in one day – it is because of the older children before us that we have this success today. Today, we are proud, because we know our community, and all of India, is polio-free. But that does not mean our work has stopped, and after us, our younger brothers and sisters will continue this work. 

Do you know a vaccine hero? Share your thoughts via Twitter using the hashtag #vaccineswork, Facebook or in the comments below.

To learn more about the importance of vaccinating kids worldwide, visit our partners, Shot@Life and the GAVI Alliance.

Look for more stories of vaccine heroes coming soon on Impatient Optimists.

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