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India Ad Campaigns Stress Importance of Polio Vaccinations - 2004-05-20


Last year, India recorded the lowest number of cases ever of polio, a crippling and sometimes fatal disease. This year, officials hope to stop transmission of the poliovirus for good. If India and five other countries are successful, polio will join smallpox on the very short list of eradicated diseases. Massive campaigns are delivering anti-polio vaccine to children all across India. However, another massive campaign is under way to convince India's largely uneducated population that getting vaccinated matters.

Beside the main road through the northern Indian village of Sepah Ibrahimabad, a group of young women in identical blue saris are performing while tractors loaded with sugar cane rumble on behind them. Street plays like this one take place across some of India's poorest regions ahead of teams arriving to deliver the vaccine against polio. Street plays let villagers know the vaccinators are coming, but they also educate this mostly illiterate audience about why it's important to vaccinate their children. In this scene, the play cautions villagers that once a child has polio, it can't be cured, no matter what some local doctors may say.

"I can heal your child if you give me 501 rupees, one chicken, one bottle of wine, and one lemon," says an actor.

But the quack can't cure the child and the play shows how victims of polio suffer. The child is handicapped and is pushed out of a neighborhood game of cricket.

In other areas, magic shows and puppet shows deliver a similar message to crowds of parents and children. In some villages, even the children themselves have been recruited.

Children at this rally on vaccination day have spent the afternoon going house to house making sure their playmates get vaccinated.

With polio eradication in sight, the program's partners have put more resources into activities like these, aimed at motivating people to vaccinate their children. A safe and effective vaccine against a crippling and sometimes fatal disease might seem to sell itself. Though the advantage is not obvious to many Indians, according to the Indian government's program director, Sobhan Sarkar.

?It is not like any other sector where there is a commercial benefit,? he said. ?The people do not see it as a commercial benefit. So how to sell your concept for better acceptance??

One way to sell the concept is the conventional one: advertise on the radio and television. So the U.N. children's agency UNICEF has hired famous Indian actors and athletes to star in ads promoting the campaign. Last year, the trademark righteous anger of Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan fired up the polio ads. Of parents who brought their children to be immunized last year, 90 percent said the ads were a factor. So UNICEF brought Mr. Bachchan back this year.

"All year I've been pleading this one thing: give your children polio drops and save their lives,? he said. ?But, you people! Some people listen to me. But some people don't listen at all. Don't you like my face? Should I get someone prettier?"

So top actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai joins Mr. Bachchan to make the plea.

But many people in India don't get radio or television. So communications director Michael Galway of UNICEF says the campaign has to work harder. "Here, because families are poor, because they don't have the same kind of access to media, you have to go door-to-door, you have to engage people who come in contact with those families,? he said.

That means engaging community leaders to take the message to their neighbors. Person-to-person contact is especially important in places where false rumors about the vaccine have spread and resistance has set in. Sepah Ibrahimabad used to be one such place. Weaver Mohammed Tahir had refused to have his children vaccinated until recently. His reason is one heard all over this region.

"There was a rumor going around that if you give your children polio vaccine, it will make the child sterile,? he said. ?This was a myth that I believed, but when I saw there was no evidence, I agreed to give the vaccine."

Mr. Tahir said that regular visits from UNICEF worker Sadiq Raza helped change his mind. Mr. Raza added that convincing people can be hard work, but it's worth it.

?When people refuse, I feel like I'm not doing anything,? he said. ?But when I convince someone, I feel excited, like I've achieved something.?

Finding the right envoy can be tricky. UNICEF's Michael Galway remembers his experience in an alley in the northern city of Meerut. The vaccination team he was with ran into a lot of resistance until they involved a local woman known as Comrade Sumita.

"In that alley, she was the one that everybody listened to,? he recalled. ?So we went back, we asked her to come with us, she accompanied the teams and practically every house then agreed that they would get their children immunized because Comrade Sumita was willing to go door to door. Then we went to the very next alley. And I said, 'Well, where's Comrade Sumita? We need her back for this next alley.' And they said, 'She has no influence over here.'"

Finding that special person is a daunting task and it helps to explain why polio still lingers in a few pockets in India.

However, these intensive efforts to convince the last holdouts appear to be working. So far this year, India has seen only eight cases of polio, compared with 68 cases by this time last year. So with the help of the right messengers and the right message, officials say the disease could soon be a thing of the past.

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