1999. Siliguri, West Bengal.
It was late afternoon when I received the call. Report of a child suffering from sudden onset of lower limb paralysis. About 100 kilometres from my headquarter. I hopped in my office vehicle.
About two and a half hours later I reached the village. The house. Darkness had set in by then. The music of evening prayers from the village temple floated in air.
A child was lying on a bed. Beside his mother. Relatives, neighbours stood outside. In silence. Grandma, Papa stood in the room by the bed as I examined the child.
This was indeed a case of Acute Flaccid Paralysis. I filled necessary record forms. Provided Grandma with two containers for collecting stool specimens. And explained procedures.
As I collected everything and proceeded towards the door, Grandma asked the one question which I was silently praying no one would ask. “Doctor, does my child have Polio?”
I stood. All eyes and ears were on me. Neighbours and family members.
I said “I do not know. We can only say after I have the stool specimen results”. And I began walking, Grandma repeated “Please tell us Doctor, you have seen many cases. Does my child have Polio?” I repeated “I do not know”. There was absolute silence everywhere. Grandma started weeping.
The mother had not spoken till then. Suddenly at this point, she spoke. Loudly. “Doctor, you can send the specimens to the laboratory but my son does not have Polio. Do not worry. I am sure.” She said firmly. No one spoke thereafter.
The firmness in the mother’s voice, her conviction that her son did not suffer from Polio bothered me. How could she be so sure, I thought. It did look so much like Polio.
The specimens arrived after 48 hours in cold boxes. And were immediately sent to the laboratory.
Over the next days, I investigated other cases. Similar.
But this case kept on haunting me. I almost knew that this was a case of Polio. The history and presentation were so typical of Polio. I almost knew what the laboratory result would be.
And I knew I would have to go to deliver the report.
I kept on calling the laboratory in Kolkata every alternate day. It was after around 10 days that the results came.
The tests were negative for Polio. I was overjoyed.
It was afternoon again when I received the report. Yet, I decided to inform the family that very day. I boarded my jeep.
On my way I bought a packet of sweets for the family.
Another two and a half hours later, I reached the village. When I reached the house, I found the child crawling outside the house. Slow. But crawling. It was late evening.
Neighbours came running as I entered the house. I gave the sweets to Grandma and said “Good news. Your child does not have Polio.” There was a sound of relief and joy among the small crowd that had now entered the room. Grandma placed her palm on my head and muttered a blessing.
The mother was sitting on the bed and smiling. She was looking at me. When our eyes met, she said “I told you so.”
This was my turn to ask her. “How did you know Didi?”
She smiled. And said “Doctor, every time ANM Didi came to our house to give my son Polio vaccine, I fed him with two drops. I have lost count of the number of drops my son has received.
ANM Didi told me that if he takes Polio vaccine, he will never have Polio. So, he can have other diseases but not Polio. He is protected. I know.”
And she smiled again.
I truly did not know what to tell her. What she said was so logical, yet. I nodded and told her “Yes, you are right.”
I have never forgotten that evening ever. And the lesson I learned. Of trust.
And ever after, I have been very careful about what I say to the community on vaccines. Truth. Always the truth.
In public health, we must be very careful how we say and what we say. For community’s trust on our programs largely determines the success and failure of public health programs.
P.S: On a follow-up about 6 months later I found that the child had fully recovered.