The delegation was led by Shannaz Wazir Ali, who is Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani’s Special Assistant for polio eradication. I’d met her early last year in Dubai, to talk about ridding Pakistan of this terrible disease, and so it was good to catch up on progress made in the intervening months.Accompanying her were a group of public health officials and, most importantly, leaders from many of the provincial governments who are on the ground working toward this tough but important goal.
That this meeting happened in India is significant for several reasons. But the fact that India has been without a case of polio for over a year now is a terrific achievement. Besides meeting with me, the group will also spend time with Indian public health officials, sharing best practices and learning from one another. The conditions in Pakistan are really difficult, but you could not hope to find a more committed group of people than the delegation I met with. Many of the public health workers fighting to end polio in Pakistan risk their lives doing so. These are true heroes who face incredible obstacles—misperceptions about the vaccines, remote and migrant communities, the need to go into villages that are dangerous because of violence and political instability.
But if India could beat polio (at least so far) in places like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, I know Pakistan can do the same for its people. There are 16 cases reported in Pakistan so far this year. While that’s not a big number, it represents a huge vaccination challenge. I don’t wish to underplay the challenge, but seeing the Pakistani delegation’s resolve and desire to make polio eradication a national priority encouraged me.
Later in the day I visited the Serum Institute of India. This is an amazing company, and its facilities would be considered state of the art anywhere in the world. Serum produces low-cost, high-quality vaccines used in 140 countries around the world. It started out in 1966 to manufacture low-cost vaccines for Indian use. But over the years, Serum’s low-cost vaccines have literally transformed the world of health. By lowering the cost, you expand the reach of these miracle drugs. So I was really honored to be welcomed by Dr. Cyrus Poonawalla, who started Serum with his brother, and whose commitment to low-cost access has made a huge difference to millions of people around the world. This year, Serum will ship a billion doses of vaccines worldwide.
I was able to meet with a number of Serum’s top scientists and got to look at their impressive manufacturing line. I was particularly happy to see their work on the Pentavalent vaccines. This is a 5-in-1 vaccine given to children to protect them from life-threatening haemophilus influenza type B, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and hepatitis B. Serum’s work has dramatically lowered the cost of these vaccines (and a great many others) and is a true contribution by India to the well-being of the world.
A couple of commenters have asked about the weather, and I’ll admit—as a guy from Seattle—that the temperatures have been a challenge (44 Celsius – 112 Fahrenheit today). The upside is that it’s the height of the mango season right now, and I’ve been lucky enough to get them at just about every meal. They’re spectacular.
I finish up in Bangalore on Friday where I’ll once again be spending time with two distant ends of the spectrum. In the morning, a meeting with sex workers involved in an HIV prevention program called Avahan and I’ll end the day listening to some of India’s wealthiest families about their thoughts on philanthropy.