Morning boat ride along the ghats, Varanasi

Big day today! This morning Dana and I dragged ourselves out of bed once again before dawn, this time to take a boat ride down the Ganges. I hardly slept last night with the noise from the road outside our window so it was especially tough to kick off the sheets. It was well worth the effort though with Varanasi proving very peaceful and photogenic in the morning light. We saw the cremation ghats and a lot more besides, but I’ll let the pictures do the talking. I would like to upload a few photos now but unfortunately the pen drive I am using has 948 viruses and counting according to the virus scan that I am doing! Must have been the last computer I used up the road.

After breakfast and a change of hotel we contacted the local UNICEF workers who offered to take us out and show us some of the initiatives they have going on here to vaccinate the children, especially against polio. It’s been around a year since India’s last case of polio and the country is about to be declared non-endemic, a fantastic achievement. It’s been about four years since a polio case in Varanasi. We drove out of town to a couple of rural areas and attended some education meetings organised around the immunisation round about to happen here.

Update on the virtual viruses, 1164 at the end of the innings and I think I just deleted the photos. I’ll try again tomorrow.

The first was a mother’s group on a rooftop (no balustrades here!) where a young UNICEF community worker gave a talk on hygiene, baby care and the importance of vaccination. She used a flip chart with diagrams to help the illiterate women in the group understand. The women were active and interested, asking questions the whole time, which was great to see. Some of the illustrations were tragicomic after three weeks here. One for proper baby care included the men playing cards and drinking tea in the background while the women cooked and the babies played in the dirt.  Obviously the advice from the UNICEF worker would be to get the men to pick the babies up while the women cooked, but I don’t remember seeing this happen here much yet. Usually the street is populated entirely by men, with very few women around until the evening when a few families come out to do the shopping or eat a meal. Different culture I guess.

The second was a community meeting a few kilometres away which was much the same, though our UNICEF guides pointed out that this was a community meeting, not a mother’s group, though there were no men present. The men were all crowded around a local two-man circus we passed on the walk in, but it did look pretty interesting in their defense!  Bohdana is going to take over from here, I’m going to get a chai.

What can I say. Ben has pretty much covered it all! It was great to see some of UNICEF’s community work in polio immunisation here, particularly interesting because in a few weeks time India should be take off the list of endemic polio countries (leaving just three left – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria).  It’s incredible to think that just two years ago (2009) India had 741 cases of polio; last year there was just one.

Varanasi is in the state of Utter Pradesh which is a particularly high-risk area for polio, especially in Agra and Varanasi, areas with poor sanitation and hygiene awareness. Around 400,000 children are born here every month, and some amazing work is done by these community volunteers (community mobilisation coordinators if you want to get UNICEF technical-CMCs if you want the acronym!) to educate mothers on the importance of immunisation as well as keeping meticulous records of families, how many children they have, whether they’ve been vaccinated or why they weren’t vaccinated (sick, not at home, refused, etc).

After seeing the community meeting we meet the Imam from the local Mosque who does bi-monthly community announcements in his mosque on the importance of polio immunisation and when the next immunisation round is. A lot of vaccination resistance comes from the Muslim community who believe that immunisation can cause impotence and bad side effects. Thanks to the engagement of local community leaders, all children in this community had been immunised and none had missed out at the last round, an improvement on the thirty or so missed the previous time.

On our way back we stopped at the local brick kiln. Around 64 families lived at this one brick kiln and they are a group at particularly high risk of polio- because the work is seasonal and they are transient, they slip through the cracks. UNICEF (and when I say UNICEF, we also work with WHO, Rotary and the Gov Dept of Health) also organises vaccinators to visit these kilns to ensure these children don’t miss out. Here I met Rekhrm and Domeshwrir who have two children including 3 year old Ragindra. They are from Chattisgar and live here for 4-5 months of the year and then in the summer and monsoon season return home. Domeshwrir showed me her house and explained that a health worker had come and spoken to her on the importance of vaccinating children against polio so both of her children had been immunised.

It was really interesting and eye-opening to see just the small fraction of work that is being done here just on polio eradication, but amazing to think of the achievements in such a small time frame. Tomorrow Ben and I are heading out again to see some more and I’ll upload photos shortly. When we were at the mothers group meeting Ben took a photo of some children on the rooftop opposite and as we reviewed them we noticed one the kids was doing a big poo, just as the woman was explaining the importance of hygiene.

Ah India.

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