The Unsung Heroes Behind India’s Progress in Child Health

Ever wonder what it takes for a country like India to keep her children healthy?

The country has made considerable progress in safeguarding children’s health over the past few years. Today, a child in India is three times more likely to survive than in 1990. India has managed to significantly reduce deaths of children under five years of age, and has achieved remarkable landmarks, such as the elimination of polio in 2014, that is a feat no smaller than a public health miracle.

Many of these tremendous achievements in the arena of child health are due to immunization, which prevents and controls the spread of infectious diseases like measles, diarrhea, pneumonia.

Also Read: India Among Countries With High Childhood Cancer Burden: Lancet

India’s immunization program that has witnessed unprecedented political support in recent years, currently protects about 3.3 crore children from several diseases, and has eliminated others altogether.

Recently, new vaccines have been introduced into the program and scaled up across the country – such as the rotavirus vaccine and pneumococcal conjugate vaccine that respectively prevent against two important causes of severe diarrhoea and pneumonia, which are two leading causes of childhood mortality.

But when we talk about progress in health, we sometimes fail to recognize the many people across many fields who make this possible. Without ordinary people doing extraordinary things across the country – from researchers, scientists to health workers and community leaders – progress would not be possible.

These are stories of determination. Take for instance Geeta Verma, a bike-riding Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) from Himachal Pradesh, who travels long stretches of rough, hilly terrain to make sure vaccines reach children in the remotest corners of her district. A photograph of her on her motorcycle, delivering vaccines, went viral in 2018, and was published in the World Health Organization’s calendar.

"“Motivating people is most important. I still call people in my sub-centre on the 20th of every single month to convince them to bring their children for vaccinations. If you have will power, you can do anything.”  " - Dr Geeta Verma

Geeta Verma, Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), Mandi, Himachal Pradesh.

They are also tales of innovation.

For example, Dr. Santosh Shukla is Madhya Pradesh’s State Immunization Officer, in charge of overseeing the implementation of the state’s immunization program. Dr. Shukla has been able to address complex challenges by understanding the challenges people in his community were facing and coming up with out-of-the-box solutions. For example, he developed a clever mnemonic tool (a “cold chain prayer”) to help health workers under his charge remember how to properly store vaccines, reducing wastage.

Dr. Santosh Shukla, State Immunisation Officer, Madhya Pradesh.

"“I squeezed long, dense information down to a ten-wordmnemonic, to allow people to easily remember the information they need tocollect data and properly store vaccines.”" - Dr. Santosh Shukla

These are also stories of understanding. Abdul Shah is the father of nine-year-old Rukhsar, the last child to be diagnosed with polio in the country. A zari worker from rural Bengal, Shah didn’t immunize Rukhsar during her childhood because of misinformation around immunization. But today, he is a vocal vaccine advocate who has played an important role in changing the mindsets of other parents. The efforts of thousands of advocates like him have been instrumental in ensuring India remains polio-free, five years on from Rukshar’s diagnosis.

Rukhsar (right) the last child diagnosed with polio in the country with her father, Abdul Shah (left).

"“I believe it is critical to immunize children with vaccines. I tell (mothers) not to make the same mistakes I did and many of them have changed their opinions.” " - Abdul Shah

Abdul Shah, Geeta Varma and Dr. Santosh Shukla are representatives from the vast legion of people working behind the scenes to make sure the country’s children grow up safe and protected.

While their backgrounds are diverse, they are all united by a common goal: to ensure that no child in the country suffers from preventable diseases.

(This story is published in collaboration with the organizers of Behind-the-Scenes in Child Health: Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, Child Health Foundation, International Vaccine Access Center, Johns Hopkins University and Global Health Strategies.)

Also Read: No Shortage of Polio Vaccines in the Country: Health Ministry

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