A milestone in India’s fight against polio

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It’s a historic day for India in the field of child health. For the first time in the span of a year, not a single new case of wild polio virus has been detected in the country. The government-run polio vaccination drive in association with other international organisations has been lauded for this progress.

Only ten years ago, India had the highest number of polio infections with 1,600 cases detected in 2002 alone. Friday’s milestone has been made possible by the Pulse Polio Immunisation Programme, initiated by the government of India in 1995, which aims to administer oral polio vaccine to every child under the age of five across the country.

The implementation of the programme, supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), UNICEF, the World Bank and various other international bodies, has required over 2.3 million volunteers, who have set up 800,000 vaccination centres for two national immunisation days every year. This has ensured that over 172 million children have been vaccinated against the polio virus.

Significant step
By mid-February, India will be dropped from the list of polio-endemic countries. Dr Hamid Jafari, project manager at the WHO-assisted National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP), thinks this is a significant step in India’s fight against polio.

“This anniversary is an endorsement of the polio eradication strategies and their robust implementation in India. It is also a testament to the perseverance, resilience and innovative work of the medical officers and health workers under very trying conditions,” Dr Jafari says.

Lieven Desomer, the UNICEF head of India’s polio unit, spells out these trying conditions. He says, “India overcame huge challenges to stop transmission of polio, including its high birth rate, large population, hard-to-reach migrant communities and resistance to oral polio vaccine in high-risk populations. And its progress is positive proof that polio eradication can be achieved anywhere in the world, even in the most challenging conditions.”

Increased vigilance
While there are no arguments about this being a big day for India, Dr Jafari warns against any kind of complacency. He says the key challenge now is to ensure that any residual or imported polio virus in the country is detected and eliminated.

“This requires very high levels of vigilance and emergency preparedness to respond to any importation of wild poliovirus. The importation of wild poliovirus into China in 2011 highlights the risk that India faces of polio returning to the country,” he warns.

Living with polio
While the government is trying hard to contain any further outbreak of the virus, life is not easy for those who are affected by it. Swati Sanklecha-Phulphagar, who has been heading camps for children affected with polio, says physical disability caused by the disease is only part of the problem.

“Most of the cases are found among people from poor backgrounds. There is a lot of ignorance among them about the disease. Some believe that polio is contagious and so don’t mingle with those affected by the virus. Some of them also think that the handicap is a result of their sins from past life. This just leads to lack of any support for the victim and victim’s family,” Swati explains.

Way ahead
There are over 55,000 cases of polio-affected individuals in India, according to 2010 figures. Uttar Pradesh in northern India leads the chart with 1065 cases, followed by 870 cases in Bihar, according to data collected by the NPSP in December 2011.

Apart from India, neighbouring Pakistan and Afghanistan are South Asia’s other two polio-endemic countries. Nigeria in West Africa is the only other nation in the world falling under this classification. However, if India’s case study is anything to go by, it can only be a positive reinforcement for these countries battling against the deadly virus.