It’s a universal truth that parents want what’s best for their children. Unfortunately, when a parent questions the value of vaccines, he puts his entire community at risk. But as I learned in India in 2008, this shared risk can sometimes be part of the solution.
In March of that year, polio, a disease that can be prevented by a simple vaccine, but which untreated can cause paralysis, was detected in an eighteen-month-old boy from Kultali, an area on the fringes of the reserve forests of Sundarbans, in the Indian State of West Bengal. At the time, I worked for the World Health Organization and was called in as part of team to help deal with the outbreak.
Upon arriving to the village in Kultali, we learned that the child had never received a single dose of any vaccine through routine immunization or any other type of vaccination campaign. And we soon found out why–the seventy-year-old grandfather of the child mistakenly believed that vaccines have harmful health effects and had not allowed anyone in his family to be vaccinated for years.
Grandfather and child. Kultali, West Bengal, India. 2008.
To make matters worse, we discovered that others in the village shared this belief and had also refused to be vaccinated, putting the entire community at risk of contracting a myriad of vaccine preventable-diseases, like measles, tetanus, and polio.
To deal with the polio outbreak, we worked with the local health department over the following weeks to build the community’s confidence in vaccines and other basic health programs. We did several things including gathering local physicians, non-profits, religious and political leaders to reinforce the importance of protecting the children with vaccines. Ultimately, the vulnerability of their own children—many of whom were the same age as the affected child and lived in the same neighborhood— to the virus, made for the most convincing argument. And soon after, the local mosque began to make regular pro-vaccination announcements during prayers.
By now, the eighteen-month-old had become partially paralyzed—leading the grandfather to question his beliefs. But the collective stand of his community and neighbors ensured he understood the importance of vaccines. He not only believed in the power of vaccines, he went so far as to join the local community to ensure the disease did not spread to others. With a vaccine carrier on his back, he cautioned others who were hesitant to vaccinate their children with his own story: “Don’t allow polio to paralyze your child. It’s too late for my family. But you want to see your little ones running around, don’t you?”
The grandfather vaccinates the child of a “resistant” family in his neighborhood. Kultali, West Bengal, India. 2008.
Kultali never saw a second case of polio, and India has been “polio-free” since 2011.
Thanks to a dedicated effort from the Indian government, global partners and leaders at all levels, India has now been polio free for more than two years. But correcting parents’ misconceptions about vaccines is a major hurdle to ending polio in the three countries where it still exists—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Today, we have the fewest number of cases of polio in the fewest countries. But we must come together to end the disease once and for all now while we still have a chance; because, as long as one child is at risk of getting it, all of our children, irrespective of caste or creed, will remain vulnerable to the crippling effect of polio.