Local Ithaca Rotarians Janet Steiner and Edward Kokkelenberg became part of the world-wide effort to eradicate polio when they helped immunize children in India in February 2011. Being part of humanitarian mission was both humbling and inspiring, they reported.

By 1964 only 122 cases of polio were recorded in the United States, due to the break-through work of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin who developed the polio vaccine.  The World Health Organization certified the Americas polio-free in 1994, the western Pacific region in 2000 and Europe in 2002.    But polio is still crippling children in four countries today: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. India is tackling the problem through National Immunization Days, in which as many as 179 million children are vaccinated.  

Teams of health care workers, local Rotarians and visiting Rotarians from around the world work to promote the event, assist with the delivery of the vaccine, and conduct door to door follow up visits to ensure that all children receive the two drops of vaccine that promises that they will live a polio- free life.

In a country of 1.2 billion people, where once 500 cases of polio were reported  each day, only one case of polio has been reported in India in 2011. This indicates the tremendous progress that has been made in India, due to the diligence and commitment of Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Government of India, local politicians, religious leaders, donors, and volunteers.

Steiner and Kokkelenberg joined a group of 35 Rotarians from the United States and Canada on a NID tour. They were based on Delhi, but assigned to work in Ghaziabad, one hour away, a city of one million people.

The first event was a Social Mobilization parade, designed to bring awareness of the upcoming immunization day. The parade included children from dozens of schools, musicians, horses and the teams of local Rotarians, and those visiting from Japan, England, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. Snaking through many neighborhoods as well as busy commercial streets, parade participants were greeted with many smiles, waves and a general feeling of excitement.

Sunday, February 27 was the National Immunization Day. Teams of six Rotarians were assigned to various booths located throughout Ghaziabad. The professional health care workers kept the vaccine cold and handed out vials to those giving the vaccine. All children ages five and under receive two drops orally. The booth was mobbed with families bringing children—they arrived from all directions, and in all modes of transportation: on foot, by bicycle, motorcycle, tuk-tuks, taxis and by car. Rotarians worked swiftly, delivering the vaccine and then marking the left pinky of the child with a purple magic marker to indicate that he or she had been immunized. Stickers and small whistles were given out to all.

At the booth where Steiner and Kokkelenberg worked, 400 children were immunized in a three hour period. When the next shift of local Rotarians arrived to take over, both were feeling an adrenaline high  while at the same time being somewhat exhausted from physical and emotional energy that they expended.

The following day, the same groups of six were sent out to accompany the health care workers on follow-up missions, to find and immunize the remainder of the children. By this time, Edward was feeling the effects of a 24 hour intestinal bug, so Janet alone had the experience of visiting three slums, where, she said, “we could not go door-to-door, as the slums were simply tarps, tents and plastic bags. We attracted a crowd of mostly women and children as we were wearing our brightly colored polio vests and blue baseball caps. We were greeted by smiles and many hands to shake, all wanting their photos taken with the foreigners who had come from the other side of the world to help.”

In addition to the polio immunization events, the group visited three local Rotary sponsored projects in Delhi. The first was at St. Stephens Hospital where Dr. Matthew Varghese, an orthopedic surgeon does reconstructive surgery for polio survivors. Dr. Varghese introduced us to seven patients and explained the corrective surgery and also introduced us to his team who make the prosthesis and braces

The hospital does about 200 surgeries per year, with local Rotary clubs paying 50% of the cost and the hospital paying the remainder. The patient pays nothing.

The second visit was to the Rotary Vikling Kendra project where artificial limbs were made and distributed for free to those in need. They watched as a technician made and fitted a brace for a young man who was then able to stand for the first time in his life.

The third visit was located in an illegal squatter’s site with deplorable conditions which the Rotary club of Delhi South Metropolitan has adopted and built a community center and a  school which, in part offers vocational training for young women, teaching them sewing, and embroidery, with the hope that they will someday be able to be self-employed by selling their bags, purses and embroidered linens. The entire tour group was chastened by this experience, and humbled by the enormous efforts of local Rotary clubs to make a difference despite immense challenges.

For Kokkelenberg, meeting a local polio victim was the defining moment of the trip. He met Ophu when the tour group visited a major tourist site in Agra, and he decided to skip the tour and stayed outside. He approached Ophu and chatted with him for some time, while hawkers and vendors suspended their sales pitches and translated.

Now age 22, Ophu was stricken when he was 7, and has been a crippled beggar since then. Kokkelenberg told Ophu what he was doing in India and where he was from, but he said, “we

He gave Ophu information about St. Stephens and Dr. Matthew Varghese, but this hospital was at least four hours away from Agra. It was clear from the translators’ skepticism that he probably could not follow up. “We think about Ophu every day.  We know that our visit helps prevent others from becoming afflicted like Ophu”.