My first job out of graduate school was selling vaccines for Lederle Pharmaceutical Company, so isn’t ironic that today I find myself shooting pictures of Polio Vaccine being used half a world away, in India. Polio has been eradicated in the USA, due to an aggressive and effective vaccination program which started years ago, but in other parts of the world the fight against polio is still going on.

According to UNICEF,  India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria are the only remaining “polio-endemic” countries. Therefore, there is an ongoing collaborative Polio Eradication Programme in India which is a joint effort between the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MOHFW), WHO’s National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP), UNICEF, Rotary International, and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control.

The program aims to eradicate polio from India by immunizing every child under five years of age with the oral polio vaccine.

Tremendous progress has been made in the last few years to interrupt polio transmission in India. The number of polio cases dropped to a record low of 42 in 2010 compared with 741 in 2009, but the job is not complete just yet.

To date, in 2011, India has had only one case of polio, in January in Howrah district of West Bengal. The traditional polio endemic states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have not reported any cases of polio this year.

One way that the program finds and immunizes children is by sending health workers to places like Howrah Train Station, in Kolkata (Calcutta), where families with children from all over India are in transit. Howrah is India’s busiest train station, carrying more than 1 million passengers per day, so it’s a prime target for India’s Polio Eradication Programme.

I had the opportunity to photograph health workers at Kolkata’s Howrah station as they fanned-out in teams of two with Oral Polio vaccine in hand to identify possible candidates moving through the station. Health workers dressed in yellow sashes look for families carrying young children, then rush in and quickly ascertain if the child has been previously immunized or not. If the child has not been immunized, they administer the oral polio vaccine on the spot and send the child and family happily on their way. It only takes a few seconds, and India is one step closer to derailing Polio. The immunization process is an amazing thing to witness, and all I could keep thinking was “only in India”!

I spent a total of about 2 hours photographing at Howrah station to cover this story, I could have stayed 3 days. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I love photographing at train stations especially Howrah station, I first shot here in 2007. Railway stations are like microcosms of India herself, full of life and pulsing with action all day and night. Howrah Station, I’ll be back again!

A health worker scans the crowd for possible candidates.

Posters around the station advertise the Polio Eradication Program
A child gets immunized with Oral Polio Vaccine
A child receives a paper mask as a reward for her cooperation, dad seems happy too.

Displaying a vial of the Oral Polio Vaccine which is kept on ice in small portable coolers that the health workers carry to their posts.

A team leader check on the health workers, positioned on different platforms around the station
A child who received the immunization sits on a departing train, wearing the paper mask she received as a reward for taking the vaccine

Health workers gather at the Polio information desk.

Stay tuned to this blog, because later this week, if I can get some broadband internet, I’ll be uploading a DSLR video of the polio eradication teams in action! I shot lots of still images and did my best to drag the shutter, creating motion blurs and such. I then took some video and after reviewing both the stills and the video, I really feel like video does a better job of capturing the excitement and energy of the moment.

Well, with great internet access here in Columbo, Sri Lanka tonight, I’ve uploaded the raw, unedited, Polio eradication video. Enjoy.


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