India’s triumph over polio is one of the most inspiring stories in global health. But with three countries still battling the disease, there is no room for complacency, writes Rajashree Birla
In 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 polio cases globally, with the highest concentration in South Asian countries and Africa. Before the polio eradication drive was launched, practically 200,000 children would be crippled every year. And India was looked upon as the epicenter of polio. Between 1998 and 2009, India accounted for half of the world’s new polio cases.
Then there was a miraculous decline in the numbers. Four years ago, in 2009, India reported 741 polio cases. In 2010, the number dropped to just 42. In 2011, a lone case was reported in West Bengal. And the country was taken off the list of polio–endemic nations.
We could have not come this far, without the aggressive mass immunization programme drive by the government. The government’s determination and focus, combined with the backing of WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, created the miracle.
Working it wasn’t easy. Getting a certain section of people to have their children immunized was a Herculean task as several wrong notions were clouding their decision. It called for changing mindsets, engaging doctors and influentials who went to great lengths to persuade and convince them that by not giving the pulse polio dose, they were making their children vulnerable to the risk of becoming cripples. Today, those very people are the best ambassadors of the mass immunization drive, which is currently running on all cylinders.
Not a single new case of polio in India is a message of great hope. It has also silenced the critics who felt that polio in India could never be eradicated, given its dismal standards of sanitation and hygiene.
But polio still exists in Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The virus can still travel to India as people move from one country to another. We have to be very cautious and pro–active to ensure that the virus does not re–enter our country.
There is no room for complacency. We are at an inflection point and we have the momentum. The WHO has advised India to maintain sensitive surveillance and ensure high childhood immunity against the polio virus. This is vital to ensure that no strain of polio is imported to our country until eradication is attained worldwide. A few months down the line and with no new case surfacing, the WHO could elevate India’s status to ‘polio free’.
This entails huge spends for spreading greater awareness, vaccination campaigns in remote areas and other processes. The Companies Bill 2012 (Clause 153) provides a window of opportunity through the power of partnerships between corporates, NGOs and the government to not only end polio, but several other ailments that afflict children. Vaccination, according to UN reports, prevents an estimated 2–3 million child deaths annually from preventable diseases like the polio rotavirus, measles and diarrhoea.
Hopefully, India will provide a good example to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, the only three countries where polio still persists. Once it is eradicated from there, we will have a world without polio. On this World Polio Day, let us all work collectively to help wipe out polio from the face of the earth.
Rajashree Birla is chairperson of the Aditya Birla Centre for Community Initiative and Rural DevelopmentSource
Times of India
25 October 2013,