Delivering Polio Vaccines. A New Olympic Sport


In A Rush?

  • India has been polio-free for 3 years – thanks to worldwide efforts
  • Physicians and scientists are needed for storytelling
  • I wish I was as smart as the Gates Foundation’s Dr. Ananda Bandyopadhay

One fine day at the Gates Foundation, I heard New York Times Columnist, Nicholas Kristof, discuss the harsh realities of medical journalism: 

“We need to domesticate international global health issues. You’ll see stories about planes that crash, but not planes that take off. Naturally everyone gets scared of planes.”

He made a valid point about scare tactics in healthcare media. There’s a reason “Ebola Fear” is more contagious than the actual virus. Medicine needs more story-tellers – where’s the Dr. Suess of actual cures and progress?

Enter Dr. Ananda Bandyopadhay, senior program officer for Polio Research at the Gates Foundation, medical epidemiologist,  and an absolute game changer in polio eradication.

(You can just refer to him as “Dr. B”. However, in our culture, the longer your last name is, the smarter you are)

“Polio vaccine delivery could very well be an Olympic sport”

 – said in Jest by Dr. B as he shared photos of polio vaccine deliveries.

Summerged Mahpatia village 4

 Carrying a cooler, overhead, through floods in a remote village = harder than curling.

Dr. B 2

And I say vaccine deliveries across floods is part of the next decathlon.

The ‘Olympians’ Dr. B referred to were the heroic individuals that stop at nothing to keep India polio free. Nothing includes flooding of the Kosi River, in Bihar, India, fall 2007.  It was a straight up pictorial display of human triumph – in a country of more than 1 billion, over 2 million vaccinators stepped it up to reach every remote village.

No Olympic gold awarded but they get to stand on a podium of keeping India polio free, now for over three years.

I recently shared this story with my inspiration and mentor, Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, author of the Seattle Mama Doc blog. She’s also responsible for channeling my hypomania into something productive.  Of everyone I rambled to, she was the most excited to see finally realize another key role of docs – story tellers.

Dr. B is a hallmark example. He’s one of those impatient optimists that energized the crowd at the Gates Social Meet Up for Scientific Innovation, in Seattle.


My fellow Gates Social crowd – about 40 people ready to change the world by any creative means necessary.  

I felt like the small pawn at the Gates Social. I was amidst a film director, marine biologist, healthcare consultants, policy makers, teachers, journalists, a peace activist, and a few others that made my ideas seem as innovative as that time I put garam masala in chocolate chip cookies. (Yet another Indo joke. And actually the cookies were solid)

Then I had an awakening – physicians are outnumbered and, whether we want to accept it or not, we have to translate disease to the public or we give with the anti-vaccine crowd, conspiracy theorists, and skeptics an open forum.

Speaking of anti-vaccine -> crusaders against the Gates Foundation’s polio campaign tote that Oral Polio Vaccines cause vaccine-derived poliovirus (cVDPV). Stop the madness!? Hardly.

Here’s an objective response:

Since 2000, 3 billion children worldwide received doses of OPV.  About 10 million cases of polio have been prevented, that’s a reduction by more than 99%.  All in call, 20 cVDPV outbreaks, in 20 countries, resulted in 758 VDPV cases. – The World Health Organization.

Yet, if you go chit chat with Dr. Google, you’ll find articles about how evil polio vaccines are….You do the math and tell me if that makes any sense to you.

All in all, in the hands of the right (or wrong) magician, medical stories can shape shift.

So let’s shift it back – I’ll leave you with a story Dr. B told us, that left us speechless.

He was working in a clinic, in Assam, India, during heavy rain and flooding. They assumed no one would battle the hideous weather and were prepared to close shop. Then, out of nowhere came a women, trudging through the flood, with her three children. When asked what motivated her to battle the dangerous terrain, she said it was to get polio vaccines for her kids – and she unified mothers everywhere by saying:

“I’d happily walk a mile to ensure they’ll walk for the rest of their lives.”

I could write that story out 100 times and the 101st, it’ll still give me optimistic euphoria.

What’s My Point?

Read any radical stories you want – just remember that beneath the scare tactics and crazy stories, there is plenty of hope and progress in global health. Just look at polio…or the lack of polio


Fired up and wanting to read more?

An Overview of Polio and the Vaccine from the CDC

An Economic Argument for Eradication of Polio

An Overview of the Gates Foundation’s Strategy Against Polio