Shepherds, Santa and Vaccination: A Christmas Story

“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” […] that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Baby lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” [Luke 2:8-20]

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The power of listening in public health

“Common people were apprehensive about vaccines. More than the disease. Which is obvious for something new that has direct implications for their life. The same happened in cases of hospitalisation during first and second waves. In my 17 years of experience, I faced this apprehension among parents too. To vaccinate their children. But me and my team overcome the refusals. For both children and adult vaccination. How? Just by listening to them. People must have questions. About vaccines. Especially in the age of social media. Fake news spreads faster than wind. So, we must answer their queries to combat the myths. We must devote time to listen to their worries and answer them. To convey we are here for you, anytime, if something goes wrong. No one wants to die. No one experienced this pandemic in their lifetime. Not even us. You know, injecting a vaccine is matter of a second. But we must win the heart of a person to build the confidence before we penetrate the syringe in the body. It’s his or her life, after all. For me, that’s vaccination. To win the heart. Gaining the confidence.”

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Vaccine, Bollywood and the gift of the magi

A three and a half hours long discussion. About connecting Bollywood with India’s very own Pneumococcal Conjugate vaccine. Pneumosil. In its birthplace, Maharashtra. Over a few cups of Irani tea. On the ground floor of iconic Alfred talkie.

The septuagenarian became excited to listen to my intentions. He brought out his works from a simple plastic packet. Simple like him. Ongoing, unfinished and finished works. Describing the tedious process. I was amazed. I told, ‘La jawab, Chacha’.

He looked up. ‘La jawab? These works? Then you didn’t see my Ustaad’s works.’ I asked who is he? He paused for few seconds. Touched his right earlobe. And told, ‘M. F. Hussain. I am his shaagrid.’ The disciple who worked with his guru for nearly one and half decades. ‘Even my best of the works, those received accolades from others, didn’t even come closer to his worst works. He is the best cinema poster painter in the history of Bollywood.’

I asked him, ‘can I get one of your work?’

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Chasing Vaccines to Harappa

THE BEGINNING – DUSK

The night was dark. Thick dark. Immersive, intense, illusive. I was sitting in that amidst darkness. On a charpai. In a land of Māru, Meru, Meramañ – Desert, Ocean, Mountains. Years ago, people named it Kutch. Because it has a resemblance to the tortoise. The lifeless land exists in this earth between wet & dry seasons intermittently at the Rann (desert).

I was sitting there for a while. Since the dusk. On the same charpai. Marshy salt flats were all around me. Snow white, but not so bright, or glittering. Not as immersive and intense as the thick darkness. Because of absence of the sun. But definitely illusive. The whole day was overcast. Often cloudy. What I imagined in my mind to get a frame of vaccine transportation in this white salt land miserably failed today. Because of the light. We all were praying wholeheartedly, so that sun would come out in the dusk, even for few minutes. But the luck was not with me today. Then, everyone left slowly and gradually. One by one. Except me. I was looking towards the horizon. Mesmerised by the illusion. Created by the overcast sky and grim salt land. So dry and lifeless, it seemed that the land immersed under deep pathos for ages. So deep and raw that is not possible to express. With tears. The chilling breeze was blowing through the Rann from far northwest. But my mind was much occupied with the depressing failure. The somatic senses didn’t respond to it. I would like to cry. But couldn’t. Like this land.

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Highways of Inequality

When I finally finished the photoshoot for my exhibition in the village near Jalalabad, the sun was already in the mid of the sky. It was end of the May. The summer of the northern India was in full swing as the outside temperature touched 48-degree Celsius. Me and my co-traveller from the organising partner of the exhibition, a young lady in her mid-twenties, started early morning from Lucknow to reach the destination on time. The village was about 200 kilometers away from Lucknow, near Jalalabad. As soon as we finished the shoot, we started off immediately to catch our return flight to Delhi from Lucknow in the evening. In between, to combat with the dehydration in the scorching heat, we kept drinking water to keep us hydrated. And unfortunately, it was filling up the urinary bladder slowly and gradually. The moment we reached Aligarh – Kanpur Road, I asked the chauffeur to stop the car somewhere near a roadside public toilet, so that I could relieve the pressure in my lower abdomen. He stopped the car in front of a gas station, where I found three open urinals under the sky. The urinals were stinking with strong smell of ammonia and devoid of water supply, though the provision was there. Born as an Indian male, I managed to void and with a much-relieved mental & physical state I came back to the car to embark. I was about to board, when the young lady asked, “did you find any toilet space for us? I am also under pressure.” That moment I felt that I had done a criminal offence in my life. I was guilty that I felt never before. I asked the staffs of the gas station and as expected there was none. We did not find a single functional toilet in the entire expressway that can be used by women. The few options available in the roadside restaurants or dhabas, were not at all in a condition to use. She travelled for next three and half hours sitting beside a guilty soul. She was having definite abdominal discomfort, prominent in her face and body language. 

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They Are Back on Their Feet

Lakkhi Didi is fifty plus. A frontline worker (FLW) who is diabetic and hypertensive. Amidst the pandemic, where comorbidities are threatening, she is back to the warzone by risking her own life to visit each and every household in our area to ensure that every child up to five years of age should get “Do BuNd Zindegi Ke” (two drops of life).We are yet not sure about the COVID vaccine. But we are absolutely sure that we have vaccines against fifteen vaccine preventable diseases (VPD). Amidst the pandemic panic, please don’t ignore those VPDs. Your ignorance may lead to another endemic, that may jeopardize the future of the nation’s future generations. We have defeated the wild polio virus. Your ignorance may bring it back. Please don’t commit the Seppuku.

The FLWs like Lakkhi Di, are again on their feet risking their own lives. They are visiting your area & your home. Ensure to protect the lives by allowing them to give your children two drops of life. And also ask them to guide you to immunize your children with other vaccines in the subcenter. Do remember, government is providing you the vaccines free of cost under Universal Immunization Programme (UIP), worth approximately Indian Rupees Thirty Thousand (if you immunize your children in the private facilities). Do not forget, seven times within five years of age. So, be wise, get your child fully immunize.

My tribute on World Health Day (2020)

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Today is April 7, 2020. Today is the day to celebrate the work of nurses and midwives and remind world leaders of the critical role they play in keeping the world healthy. I am taking this opportunity to pay my tribute to all the health workers including Nurses, Auxillary Nurses & Midwives (ANM) and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) by sharing one of my captured photographs, which is my personal favorite.

For the last couple of years, I am traveling across India as a commissioned health science photographer to capture the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP). During this journey, I have encountered several frontline health workers and witnessed their works in the field. By holding their hands, I have crossed rivers like Brahmaputra and Narmada, climbed the Himalayas, experienced the extreme beauties of life in far-flung India. I have captured a few thousands of photographs in these two years. But this particular photograph remains close to my heart, till date. This is a photograph of about 3D – Determination, Dedication, and Delivery, based on which the entire foundation of the public health system of India is alive. Let me tell you the exciting story behind this photograph.

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The farmer who first inoculated cowpox (1774)

Jesty Book
Image © Wellcome Collection / London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

The global history of immunization shows some amazing creativity in terms of documentation. Keeping aside the science and art of discovery to delivery of vaccines, there were numerous people, outside scientific fields, enriched the history with their creativity. Apart from the scientific papers, the history of immunization had been documented by paintings, literature, folk arts, photographs, poetry, and many other forms. For example, Athenian historian and General Thucydides, who scientifically documented the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) and thus the scientific world came to know about the Plague of Athens (430 BC), including the symptoms of the victims during the epidemic. Or for example, the metaphorical connection between the famous rhyme “Ring a Ring o’ Rosie” with the Great Plague of England (1665) as described by noted English folklorists Lona and Peter Opie.

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