Fighting polio in foreign lands

Pallab Mohaimen | Update:

Anisur Rahman Siddique. Photo: Khaled Sarker

"We're on the threshold of a polio-free world," he said, adding that Nigeria had just passed three polio-free years. With this, all the countries except Afghanistan and Pakistan are free of polio. He had contributed to eliminate polio from the African country. He is a Bangladeshi public health expert who was the communication chief of development and head of a polio team at UNICEF.

This is Anisur Rahman Siddique. Recently in Dhaka, he shared his experience with Prothom Alo.

Bangladesh, the impetus
The world was supposed to be free of polio by 2000 as countries took initiatives to prevent the life threatening diseases. Bangladesh conducted a successful immunisation programme during the 90s. Anis was working at a non-government organisation then. "A number of us joined in World Health Organisation (WHO)," he said.

In India, he worked to eradicate polio there on behalf of WHO (World Health Organisation) and UNICEF. Earlier, he had worked to the same end in other countries.

Anis Rahman got involved with the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) and awareness was raised among people due to extensive publicity, eventually freeing Bangladesh of polio by 2001.

In India for eliminating polio
Anis was sent to India to work for polio eradication in 2003 when he was a divisional coordinator of WHO at Dhaka. It was a remote area of Uttar Pradesh where social norms and religious fatwa had to be maintained. The renowned Darul Ulum Deoband madrasa reportedly said the vaccines provided for the children were not made in a halal (religiously permissible) manner. This obstructed them to immunise a big section of the community.

Anisur Rahman Siddique. Photo: CollectedAnis talked with the alem-ulamas (religious guardians) for several times and finally they were convinced on one condition. The fatwa would be altered if Aligarh Muslim University would issue a certificate. "I communicated with Nasim Khan, vice chancellor of Aligarh University, and convinced him about the immunisation process." The Aligarh university finally issued a certificate after listening to the method of the immunisation and the scientific procedure. "The obstacle was finally resolved."

Anis worked in India from 2003 to 2015 and in between he switched his job to UNICEF from WHO, though his job which was then based on Delhi did not change.

Polio broke out in Bihar in 2007 and he was called in. He found the caste system there was extreme. No vaccination worker went to the families of local ‘Mushahari’ community, a big one at Patna. Anis took a decision to “appoint 300 people from the community who began immunising, going to the houses."

Anis was sent from Bihar to Lucknow as a programme manager. There were several problems in the public health sector including polio here. Anis and his team identified several obstacles including no use of sanitary toilets, no mothers being taken to hospital to deliver their babies. They sought cooperation from Akhilesh Yadav, the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and current president of Bharatiya Samajwadi Party.

In 2014, Anis came to Delhi as the officer-in-charge of UNICEF. “As India became polio-free in 2011, it was an occasion worth to be celebrated and so we made Amitabh Bachchan our partner.” They began Mission Indradhanu (rainbow) campaign with him. The seven colours meant seven vaccines for seven diseases. “Finally, WHO declared South Asia, except Pakistan and Afghanistan, polio-free, though Bangladesh became polio-free by 2001.”

A child being orally vaccinated by Anisur Rahman at Nigeria.Destination Nigeria

Anis Rahman Siddique remained busy running new vaccines at their organisation between 2014 and 2016. He was called to Nigeria then. Though the country became polio-free during 2014, four new cases were found in 2016. Nigeria had a different setting. Community leaders were so powerful there and communal clashes were a huge problem. For various reasons they could not enter many areas. The children were usually brought to neutral zones and immunised. Anis used the leaders to solve this. He made arrangements to send the immunisation workers to the areas. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation assisted them at Nigeria. Gradually, Nigeria got rid of polio last August and with this the continent of Africa became free of the disease.

Dream of being a surgeon
Anis Siddique was born in Brahmanbaria in 1968. His father Siddiqur Rahman worked at the T&T Board while her mother Shamshunnaher Begum was a homemaker. He was eldest among his five siblings. His family shifted to Dhaka when he was a second grader. He passed his SSC from Madartek Abdul High School in 1983 and HSC from Notre Dame College in 1985. He took his MBBS degree from Sylhet MAG Osmani Medical College in 1992 and took his post-graduate degree in 1996-97 from National Institute of Preventive and Social Medicine (NIPSOM). Later he did a course under Dhaka University in health economics.

He loved to recite poetry and recitation nearly became his profession at one point of time. When going to study at the medical college, he thought he would do some tuitions too,but failed. "Listening to my recitation once at a programme, someone from Bangladesh Betar Sylhet there asked me to go there. I was asked to read a few lines and it went on air. I got a job to host a programme every night which I did for seven years."

After completing MBBS, Anis began his internship and wanted to become a surgeon like the famous physician Rashid-e-Mahbub. He received Tk 4,000 for internship, but there was hardly anything left after spending the money for his family. Despite that to fulfill his dream to become a surgeon, he worked with Rashid-e-Mahbub for a year for free.

Around 1993, Anisur came to Dhaka and got a job at a private clinic. He had night duty and in the morning he would accompany prominent physicians. It became exhausting for him. One of his seniors advised him to join an NGO. He joined the health centre for the destitute at Tejgaon, Dhaka. Slum-dwellers from Begunbari and other areas generally were treated here. Most of the patients were suffering from skin problems.

Anisur learnt that the slum residents bathed in sewerage or other dirty water sources. He talked to the WASA and made arrangements for clean water. The number of patients rose to 200-300 per day from 30-40. His salary hiked too. Then he joined in WHO.

“I could only treat one patient at a time if I would become a surgeon, but being a public health development expert I could save lives of million people or contribute in their well being.”

For millions of people
Anisur's wife Shahnaz Hayat, too, is a physician working in Nigeria. His younger son Anindya Shaheen is doing a pre-medical course now. Anisur is optimistic about the public health management of Bangladesh. Dengue has been managed well after it broke out so widely.

What's the next challenge? He said, "We're working on building the health systems of Nigeria."

Then? He wants to continue working on public health. After all, this is the sector where one can serve millions of people.

*This piece originally appearing in Prothom Alo print edition has been rewritten in English by Nusrat Nowrin.

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