For a hyperendemic country reporting from 2–4 lakh polio cases annually during the early 1990s, it was a stupendous feat for India to be certified polio-free in 2014. This achievement involved determined efforts of several ‘foot soldiers.’ Those from Tamil Nadu were honoured by RI District 3230 on the eve of World Polio Day — October 24.
The polio eradication drive in India began on September 19, 1979 when an interaction between Rotarians Jacob John and Kenneth Hobbs of RC Whitby, Canada, resulted in the latter promising to raise funds to provide red measles vaccines. Soon 64,000 vaccine vials arrived from Canada. Between October 1980 and September 1982, 3.5 million dosages of measles vaccine were shipped to Chennai from Canada. While Air India transported them free of cost, the Tamil Nadu government facilitated their storage at the King Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy. It also ensured that the vaccine was available in all villages and children were immunised, ending measles in the State. This later extended throughout the country and 110 million children were immunised. In 1984, when RI formed the PolioPlus programme to wipe out polio from the world, Tamil Nadu was a natural choice to launch the programme.
At the Chennai event, it was a walk down memory lane for the audience gathered to salute the polio pioneers, as each of them shared their nostalgic experiences of the eradication movement.
Acknowledging the honour, Dr Hande recalled the carte blanche that the then Chief Minister M?G Ramachandran gave him to start the massive polio immunisation programme in the State and how the entire State public health department was at Rotary’s disposal for the campaign. “The nation-wide Pulse Polio concept was Rotary’s brainchild. It all began in Tamil Nadu and replicated pan India through the efforts of P V Narasimha Rao, the then Union Minister for Health,” he said. Earlier PDG Raja Ramakrishnan introduced Hande as “the Field Marshall among generals,” who had played a significant role in persuading the government to introduce the additional two doses of vaccine, which is the norm today.
Dr Jacob John, a paediatrician and member of RC Vellore (D 3230), spoke of how he had requested RI to release a Polio Grant for Tamil Nadu with an additional $250,000 to set up a cold chain for the Rotary District rather than the State government, after the central government had rejected Rotary’s offer of a grant of $30 million for polio eradication. No other Polio Grant has ever been given to an individual organisation; only governments. He added that MGR as the CM was so impressed with the Rotarians’ rescue work during a flood faced by the State, that he declared Rotary as the State government’s partner in all its social welfare schemes.
Dr John suggested to DG C R Raju to undertake measures to curb tuberculosis, the next biggest killer that drains the country of $24 billion annually. “Don’t expect a global Rotary movement against TB, or even a national Rotary movement. We are there to support you,” he said. But the TB control programme will be equally arduous and long, like polio, he warned.
Chitale recalled how he and his team of Rotarians began the polio vaccine movement in the State and the challenges they had to overcome. Echoing John’s call for controlling TB in the State, he said, “Although we are old, we are there. Do give us an opportunity.”
PDG P V Purushothaman, D 2982, with 52 years in Rotary, was lauded for setting up the cold chain facilities essential for effectively storing the vaccines throughout South India. Later, his vast experience took him to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi for polio eradication efforts. His connections with Rotarians across the globe has resulted in 75 matching grants valued at Rs 20 crore for 70 clubs of his district.
He revolutionised agriculture and introduced pepper cultivation in Yercaud which is a major source of income for the people today. He spoke about his measles vaccine experience that immunised “6,480 children on a single day at Salem” and recalled the services of German Ambassador, Rtn Gerhard Fischer, who was conferred the Gandhi Peace Prize for his exhaustive work in rehabilitation of leprosy and polio patients.
PDG S Krishnaswami recalled how in 1984 he met Chitale and PDG V Chidambaram in Chennai and acquired the red measles vaccines to inoculate children at Coimbatore. Later in 1986 when he visited Denmark as a GSE Team leader, he received one million dosages of polio vaccine and two million more from Japan. Coimbatore, well equipped with cold chain facilities, was the first to start the polio immunisation programme in India, he said. He served as polio and measles coordinator for various districts for 13 years. PDG Viswanatha Reddy said the blessings of mothers whose children have been saved from the crippling polio-virus will see Rotary grow from strength to strength. He dedicated his award to late Rtn Padmanabha Rao who was in charge of the district polio committee then. “It was a teamwork and with support from Dr Hande and Sam Pitroda from the Government’s side, things worked smoothly,” he said. “I thought it was all over and forgotten; we all feel happy that our humble services are still being recognised,” he added. Reddy and K C Vijayan, helped by AVM Saravanan of AVM Studios and AVM Balasubramaniam and cinema director S P Muthuraman made a series of documentaries which were screened in movie theatres to raise awareness on polio.
K C Vijayan is synonymous with polio eradication programme for his 20 years of service to the cause and is one of the few non-RI officers to be conferred the ‘Service above Self’ award.
The pioneers were felicitated by N Murali, Vice Chairman of Kasturi & Sons, publishers of The Hindu group of newspapers. PRIP Rajendra Saboo thanked and felicitated these pioneers for the yeoman service they had rendered to the children of India.