After a 20-hour layover, a snowstorm and a stomach full of croissants, I arrived in Delhi for my fourth National Immunization Day against polio.
As always, the flight landed at the ungodly hour of 1 a.m., and then I sat at the airport for three hours until the rest of the team arrived from their Dubai connection. We stepped out on an unusually cold morning to get on our bright orange bus, styled in the same fashion as our “bumble bee” yellow jackets.
The jackets have been a running joke for years now. They can be spotted from miles away; they’re poofy and far too large, making you look like Winnie the Pooh.
But, while I waited in the airport, an old gentleman, dressed smartly in an English sport coat that reminded me of another era, approached. He said in Punjabi, a dialect of northern India, “I was intrigued by your yellow jacket.”
Can’t blame him. Who wouldn’t be?
Then, he continued that he’d seen countless succumb to the polio virus as a young boy. He said it was everywhere, literally. In the sewers, in the water, in the back alleys of his village and in the open-air markets — lurking in every corner.
And, having seen others get it, his parents were fearful that he may as well. They didn’t know the name of this disease. They just knew what it did — put you on all fours.
This was not a unique story, though. This was the story that was playing across much of India before the “global polio eradication” effort began.
At that time, the virus was spreading rapidly. One polio case meant that there could be anywhere from 200 to 1,000 carriers in the nearby areas. It was literally running everywhere.
And in the ’50s, it was a story playing out across the U.S. as well. In fact, several of the Rotarians from the Los Angeles and Ventura areas accompanying me on this trip are polio “survivors.”
They have braces to help them; they walk with a little limp. But, here in India, those afflicted with polio are called “crawlers.” They don’t walk. They crawl.
The elderly gentleman then sat down next to me and said: “Thank you for coming. Thank you for coming to do so. I hope that one day every child can walk freely.” He then pointed to the words “polio free” on my arm.
I assured him that we’d do our best to help. He smiled and then gently got up and walked away.
He never told me his name. I never told him mine. We never needed to. We understood that there were more important things to talk about — more important things than ourselves.
In India last year, there was only one case of the disease — an 18-month-old girl from the Howrah district of Calcutta, a city that used to be the gem of the British Raj.
Calcutta has changed to Kolkata now, adopting the Hindi vernacular. But, not much else has changed. Poverty and lack of sanitation still cripple Kolkata today. The majestic sites of the British era are surrounded by clusters of destitution.
A city that harbors rich culture, the greatest filmmakers of India, the most beautiful textiles of the country and sweet melodies of incredible musicians struggles to progress forward.
India hopes, however, that this year it can march forward together on one front — polio. That’s why the country is vaccinating more than 170 million children today. As you read this column, health workers will be out in the field, observing the massive movement and trying to immunize every child under age 5.
In places like Uttar Pradesh, once the global hotbed of polio, that’s not an easy task. Nearly half a million children are born there every month. Absorb that number for a minute.
As soon as you leave the wide-lane roads of Delhi and get on the bumpy roads to Uttar Pradesh, you begin to notice the endless supply of human capital here. Streams of people are everywhere. You can’t be alone — at least not physically.
Yet, the health workers have been able to get the majority of children in even such dense areas. They’ve been able to blanket the state with the vaccine. And if they keep doing this for another two years, we could see an India without polio.
An India without polio can translate into a world without polio, given that so many of the traveling cases of polio, the ones that recently cropped up in China, Central Asia and Angola, all came from here.
If we can wipe out the virus from the environment, we can wipe it out of existence. That’s a humbling thought.
It will also enable me to hang up my yellow jacket. To put it away in my attic. And I’ll be able to do so with great pride — not just out of mere fashion sense.
Until then, however, I’ll be walking around India in “bumble bee yellow,” as we call it. If you see me, please feel free to say hello.