Young volunteers explain importance of vaccination in India

Published: 23 April 2013 14:04 CET

By Stephen Ryan in Lucknow, India

At the start of World Immunization Week, the Indian Red Cross Society is aiming to cover 100 per cent of the population against common diseases

As World Immunization Week begins, Indian Red Cross Society can be proud of its contribution to reducing avoidable child deaths.

Today in Lucknow,  the capital city of Uttar Pradesh, the government of India has completed its measles catch-up programme (phase III) vaccinating approximately 80,000 children over the past weeks. The Red Cross has been playing a key role in ensuring many parents bring their children for vaccination.

One third of the world’s children who have not received the three standard vaccinations –  Diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus – live in India. Measles alone causes an estimated 50,000-100,000 child deaths in India each year.

The authorities have substantially increased efforts to turn this situation around, particularly in recent years. However, poor understanding of immunisation and fears about vaccine safety has hampered success.

From its place within many communities in India, the Red Cross has been called on to explain to families the benefits of immunization against measles, and to encourage them to come to the vaccination centres.

Indian Red Cross Society does not provide the vaccinations or administer them; this is left to the authorities and trained medical personnel. Instead, volunteers, most of whom are young students, carry out social and community mobilization activities, such as door-to-door visits and street theatre performances. They engage communities in a dialogue about the importance of vaccination and try to achieve as close to 100 per cent coverage as possible.

Leaving out a single child can put the whole population at risk.

“Every culture has its own perspective on health. We explain to them the facts; what are the causes of measles, and how immunization keep their child healthy,” said Sunita, a volunteer involved in the programme in Lucknow. Many parents are grateful that the Red Cross, an organization they can trust, comes to explain to them what immunization means for their child.

Sauravh Agnihotri, district campaign coordinator for Lucknow gives an example of one woman from the Aminabad area of the city. “She did not know how this simple injection could keep her child healthy. Without the Red Cross action, she may not have brought her child to the vaccination centre at all.”

“This programme, delivered together with our partners, shows how important our volunteers are at getting communities involved. Just as with polio, the Red Cross wants to see all vaccine preventable diseases eradicated here in India, and our volunteers are key to seeing this realized,” said Dr. SP Agarwal, Secretary General, Indian Red Cross Society.

Not all families can be convinced though. Many still fear that their child could get sick from the medication. Another volunteer, Prachi, explains, “Not everyone agrees to bring their child. When they don't, it is very difficult for us because we are trying to help them look after their child's health and we know that this vaccination could save their child’s life.”

This programme is being delivered by the Indian Red Cross with financial support from American Red Cross and technical guidance from the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies. Throughout this four-phase campaign, the Red Cross aims to reach up to two million people, and ensure that 350,000 children are vaccinated against measles across the 20 districts covered by this programme in Madhya Pradesh (six districts) and Uttar Pradesh (14 districts). Phase IV of the campaign begins from 23 April 2013, in Varanasi and Allahabad.