VELLORE: It was a small war that started in Vellore. It then spread over to the entire Tamil Nadu and across India. Thanks to this relentless battle, the nation has been free of the dreaded polio for a year now. Two institutions - the Christian Medical College Hospital and the Rotary International played a significant role in pioneering the drive against polio about 30 years back.
The man behind the initiative was vaccine expert Dr T Jacob John, a pediatrician-turned- virologist (now retired). Dr. John recalled that CMC and the Bombay Municipality were the only ones in the country which had access to polio vaccines way back in 1967, as the vaccines had to be imported from England.
Dr. John set up the country’s first diagnostic lab at CMCH after field studies indicated that in Vellore town alone, which had a population of less than 2 lakh then, as many as 51 children were affected by polio every year. His research also indicated that around 5 per cent of the children below the age of 5 were prone to polio attacks.
With the help of the Rotary Club of Vellore, vaccines gifted by the UK-based ‘Save the Children Fund’ were for the first time imported for mass vaccination programme. Oral vaccination using pulse immunisation technology developed by Dr. John was conducted in Vellore in 1981. School children from the district also took up a walkathon - ‘A walk for those who cannot walk’ - to create awareness on the disease. Over the nine months following the immunisation drive, no polio cases were reported in the town and by 1983, Vellore was polio-free.
In 1984, Clem Renouf, a past President of Rotary International from Australia, visited Vellore to learn about the programme. He was impressed by its success and advocated for it to be emulated not just in other parts of India but also at an international level. Thus was born the Polio Plus project. Dr John was then inducted into the planning committee of the Rotary International to supervise the global project. He helped procure a grant of US $2.6 million in 1986 to implement the project in Tamil Nadu with the cooperation of the then health minister Dr H V Hande in the MGR Government.
The vaccination drive from Vellore thus spread to other districts in the state and eventually to all parts of India.
At a special function organised by the Vellore Rotary Club here on Sunday, the pioneering members attached to Rotary District 323 as well as H V Hande are being felicitated here for their untiring efforts and contribution towards eradicating polio. Health Minister Dr. Vijay will be the chief guest on the occasion.
It Was an Accident
Vellore’s drive against polio vaccination happened to be an accident! According to Dr Jacob John, it all began with vaccination for measles. In 1978, the Vellore Rotary Club had received a gift of 12,000 doses of vaccine against measles from Canada and Jacob John and his team of doctors in CMC had vaccinated the children in Vellore, Arcot and Arakonam.
The state government, was inspired by the initiative and in 1985 Dr. John sent a proposal to the Planning Commission, Government of India to take up measles vaccination at the national level.
Going by Vellore’s success in measles vaccination, the World Health Organisation (WHO) partnered with Rotary International, UNICEF and the US-based Center for Disease Control for a global polio eradication initiative based on the Vellore model.