Rothesay residents Colin and Isabel Sharp recently travelled to India intending to lend a helping hand to a major polio vaccination campaign backed by Rotary International. Here’s the story of their time there...
The last case of domestically-acquired polio in the UK was reported in 1982 - but that doesn’t mean the global fight against the disease is over.
Every year around a hundred people travel from the UK to India with Rotary International to help immunise children who are not protected against the disease - and back in February that party included Colin and Isabel Sharp, intent on lending a hand with the government’s latest National Immunisation Day.
Or, at least, that was the plan.
“The situation has now got to the critical point where people are becoming complacent,” Isabel explained, “and there is now growing up a small population of children that are not protected.
“Although no new polio cases have been reported in India in the last two or three years, neighbouring Pakistan is not polio-free, and neither is Nepal.
“Unfortunately, a lot of illiterate people are extremely wary of allowing their children to be vaccinated. Rumours have been set about that the polio vaccination also sterilises babies - polio vaccinations and contraception are the only things the Indian health system gives out free of charge, so perhaps it’s not surprising that some people put two and two together.”
Unfortunately Isabel and Colin didn’t get to vaccinate anyone: almost as soon as they arrived in the industrial town of Karnal, around 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of Delhi, they received word that riots had closed the motorway back to Delhi, and the government had imposed military rule in the area, postponing its latest National Immunisation Day - shortened by almost everyone, including the Sharps, to NID - for more than a fortnight as a result.
“On the day which should have been the NID,” Isabel said, “we were instead invited to take part in a health camp run by the Indian Rotary and funded by local hospitals.
“These are held in some of the more deprived areas two or three times a year. They’ll set up in a public place for five hours or so with doctors, two or three specialists, a dentist and a pharmacist, and anyone can drop by.
“Ours had a heart specialist, a gynaecologist, a midwife, a couple of general doctors, a dentist and a pharmacist, along with nurses and a couple of care workers from the hospital. It was really fascinating.”
Later the group went to visit two of the shanty towns where, if all had gone according to plan, they would have administered polio vaccinations to some of the 175 million children the NID initiative hopes to protect at each of its day-long events.
“That was gobsmacking,” Isabel said. “I mean, really eye-opening stuff.
“The first of the towns we went to had some buildings, but the second was made up of tents - well, I say tents, but it was really tarpaulins, plastic bags, branches of trees, anything that could be used to provide shelter.
“But it was still a wee town, and it was organised, and Rotary was providing a wee school. And we should have been working there. But we couldn’t do it.”
The reasons behind the unrest are a little complicated to explain: roughly, and briefly, it all boiled down to the ‘caste’ system, a much more rigid and immobile version of the British class structure, and a perception among those above the bottom rung of the social ladder that those in the lowest caste were getting more government jobs, in the police, health and education, than they were entitled to.
Of rather more interest at the time, as far as the Sharps were concerned, was the fact that the route between Karnal and Delhi remained closed, and their chances of getting out and home had been thrown into doubt.
“We didn’t feel under threat,” Isabel said, “but we didn’t know how we were going to get back to Delhi.
“Our tour company was in touch with the High Commission in Delhi and in London, and with the tourism minister, the military and the police - who said they were too busy to give us a police escort.
“We were considering whether to make a break for it in the dark, but we were told not to - but when the police said they could give us an escort, but it was coming from a long way away, we decided to go anyway.”
Unfortunately for the group they soon found the motorway was still closed, and an attempted diversionary route turned out to be a dead-end leading to an ashram - a spiritual hermitage or monastery - whose occupants agreed to give their guests refuge.
“For eight hours we destroyed their silence,” Isabel said. “I’m quite sure they didn’t want us there - even though we were very, very well behaved! - but they were lovely people. They gave us a really nice meal, and they were very, very kind to us.
“We still didn’t feel frightened, but I must admit there was this slight thought in the back of my mind that it would only take one bright spark to think ‘there’s a coachload of British citizens, what can we use them to bargain for?’.
“Then suddenly, at about half past eight in the evening, the police suddenly told us the road was open, and we decided to go for it.
“This was the point where I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. They turned out all the lights on board the coach and closed all the curtains.
“I couldn’t see outside, but Colin could see through the front windscreen, and he described us driving round the burning trucks and other vehicles on the road, but he couldn’t see any rioting, and fortunately that was as bad as it got.
“It was nobody’s fault that we got caught up in the unrest. Our Indian hosts were as upset as we were that we weren’t able to take part in the NID. And it wouldn’t stop me going back to India or going back to be involved in the vaccination programme.”