Ann Lee Hussey, Rotary member and polio survivor
Left: Hussey joins Indian health workers as they immunize children in a Muslim slum in India. Right: Hussey administers the polio vaccine to a child in an Indian village.
With a fist pump, the health worker emphasizes her pride in participating in the polio campaign for many years. She taps herself over her shoulder and explains she is like a warrior carrying a gun on her back, doing her duty, but quickly points out the weapon she carries is love. This love is the secret behind India’s success in polio eradication, with an army of women spreading love as they teach the need for continuing polio immunizations. The women remind me of the song that goes, “Yes, love, love changes everything. Nothing in the world will ever be the same.”
India will certainly never be the same. As recently as 2009, India reported the highest number of polio cases in the world and was predicted to be the last country to stop the poliovirus. India has proven the naysayers wrong. Follow a team of health workers during National Immunization Days (NIDs) and you will quickly realize the strength of India’s program. Of the 2.3 million vaccinators involved in each round of polio immunization campaigns in India, approximately 80 to 85 percent are women who have worked in India’s polio program since it began in 1995.
The Aanganwadi* women workers, with children of their own, have built trusted relationships in the neighborhoods they traverse, even in the most conservative of Muslim villages. It is these women who have access to homes where men may not enter; it is these women who address mothers’ concerns and allay their fears; it is these women who share personal stories and educate with love and compassion.
The vaccinators and social mobilizers wear a badge that reads, “Work for the welfare of all children and society.” This slogan is one that I think they have selflessly earned. Traveling miles by foot, they work eight-hour days, during each eight-day campaign. Money is not their motivation, as they earn very little in the polio program; the health of children and their communities has been and remains their driving force.
One only needs to walk the paths of these health workers, streets flooded with sewage where barefoot children wander, to understand how quickly polio could return to India were it not for the dedication of these workers and the commitment of the Indian government.
On this International Women’s Day, we should give thanks to these exceptional women health workers of India’s polio campaign. We have much to learn from them. They have fought a long, hard battle against the poliovirus, yet they are not ready to rest, realizing the ever-present risk of the return of polio.
Once the risk of polio is gone forever, these same women are eager to work on other health issues facing their communities. They will fight it with the same weapon that defeated polio – love.
Love will turn your world around; and that world will last forever; Yes love, love changes everything.
*The Government of India in 1975 initiated the Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) scheme that operates at the state level to address the health issues of small children. They trained women, known as the Anganwadi workers.
Ann Lee Hussey has participated in over 25 volunteer NIDs and has received Rotary’s International Service Award for a Polio-Free World.