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Saturday, 4 December 2010

Not just nasty... a danger to life

This open sewer runs through the Chhatarpur area of Delhi. The polio virus is carried in infected faeces and is transmitted orally. Children under the age of five are vulnerable. Ninety-nine times in a hundred, the virus will not cause severe illness. But less than one per cent of  infected children will suffer from acute flaccid paralysis. Older people in the West may remember having contemporaries with the condition (and I for one have served a super Rotary president with it). But all of us who went to India in November 2010 will have seen many young people whose lives have been ruined by this disease.

Karen Sutton and her young friends on the 'mop-up' day in Chhatarpur seem very healthy... but the surroundings are not. The little lanes are narrow and crowded. Just along from where this photo was taken, human faeces were in the open drain. Who knows whether they were infected with polio. Or anything else! An  unfortunate slip of the foot and you were, to put it bluntly, right in it! Surprisingly (perhaps because the autumnal temperature was only about 17 degrees) the sewers did not smell as badly as some of us had feared. Karen, though, might testify differently. Being rather shorter than Jill Cooper and Jim Matthews, between whom she was walking, Karen did feel a bit queasy, only partly, perhaps, because she doesn't like confined spaces.

In small spaces, made even tighter by scores excited children following our every move, clamouring to be photographed time and time again, the task of precisely administering two drops of vaccine was much harder than in practice at Sheila Diskhit's garden party! 

The round of applause after each successful dose was not for ourselves, but a very effective way of drawing attention to our presence and purpose. That was the only reward that was needed and that was given... we had been told not to take pens, pencils, balloons etc for people who had not taken their children to the booths the previous day.

Between treating each child, we used NHS-issue alcohol-based sanitation gel. We had taken it out of self-interest; we had not wanted to bring back from India any souvenirs we had not haggled for! But soon we realised that we could not avoid touching the mouths of the children to whom we administered the life-protecting pink drops. Who knows, our use of that gel may have saved lives!

Karen is a professional photographer and has images which better show the overcrowded lanes through which we walked. The morning we were there might or might not have been a typical one in Chhatarpur, but petrol generators on 'street corners' were powering the pump which was drawing water from an unseen well. Pre-teen children carrying 45-litre plastic containers full of water stepped expertly past us (and over the drains). Mothers squatted on their haunches to wash clothes with soapy suds slithering into the sewer.

Clothes were not the only things being washed. This mother was washing her baby in oil. We weren't sure whether the oil was ghee (the clarified butter which features often in Hindu ritual) or whether this was just a wash-day routine. The watching children were bemused... but only in our presence and interest.
It might seem strange, but behind the doors of the one-room homes, families keep everything gleaming clean. Virtually every Hindu home will have a shrine containing murtis (models) of one or more gods and goddesses. These homes in Chhatarpur were no exception. All had spotless stainless steel pots. Many had TV sets. All dignity.

Job done... Jill Cooper, Karen Sutton and Jim and Sally Matthews back at base with their two guides, neither whom had much English. The lady in the sari was the senior partner; she clearly knew her 'patch' very well. The younger lady, in the shalwar kameez, noted which homes we had visited. With no 'street' numbers on display, homes were identified by following the power cables back to the clear Perspex junction box in the lane.

We were a bit concerned (as other groups have reported) that sometimes our guides could not explain why some children, with no sign of the pen-blackened finger-nail that indicated they had already been 'done' were not presented for vaccination.

But overall, we felt glad to have played our part in this magnificent campaign. The previous day, some of us felt, we had not had as much 'hands-on' activity as we had hoped for. But 'Mop-up Monday' will live in our memories as day of real Rotary service on the front line.

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