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If we can keep ice cream cold, why not vaccines?

Laura Sheahen/CRS

Contribution by Jim Calverley from RESULTS UK.

The polio ward at St Stephen’s Hospital in Delhi is the only designated ward of its kind in India and as far as I’m aware, the world and its beginning can be traced back to an outreach camp in a slum in 1987. Whilst there, I met with the inspirational Dr Mathew Varghese, the consultant osteopath at St Stephen’s whose work has changed the lives of scores of children from all over India.

Dr Varghese witnessed the huge challenges that faced India in eradicating polio – challenges which many people thought could not be overcome. He spoke of ice cream vendors that could keep the ice cream frozen - their livelihood depended on it - yet was dismayed at the inability for parts of the country to keep the polio vaccine cold, thus killing it and rendering it useless. For years, India was the root cause for the majority of polio cases in the world and experts believed that it would be almost impossible to eradicate the disease whilst cases in India were so prevalent.

India has proved the doubters wrong and although the health system in India is far from perfect, targeted vaccination programmes have successfully identified many children that would have previously missed the polio vaccine. That knowledge can be replicated for routine immunisation in India and beyond.

Although India was certified polio-free in 2014, there remains a generation of polio-sufferers in India for whom there is no cure. Dr Varghese has made these people an important part of his life’s work. In a country which saw as many as 741 cases of polio as recently as 2009, there were perhaps few who were more delighted than Dr Varghese when India was certified polio-free.

It is Dr Varghese’s goal is to make those who have been paralysed as independent as possible. After surgery and intensive physiotherapy, Dr Varghese’s patients have been transformed. As someone who has pioneered new techniques in alleviating the suffering of those with polio, he understands only too well how important it was for India to eradicate the disease.

The children that Dr Varghese has tended to over the years have invariably come from poor backgrounds affected by, high population density, low vaccine coverage rates and low levels of sanitation. At least 2 of the patients that I met are malnourished. These children will undergo treatment before he can take any further remedial action.

In a country where the use of a crutch can attach a stigma, the work that Dr Varghese does is nothing short of life changing. I was delighted to hear that one of his passions is teaching and it is comforting to know that a new generation of doctors will benefit from his vast experience. The challenge for India now is to incorporate all of the knowledge that it has gained from the eradication of polio into its health system. After all, where there is a will, ice cream can be kept frozen in India.