Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has described India's accomplishment in eradicating polio as the "most impressive global health success" he has ever seen.
In an essay titled 'What I Learned in the Fight Against Polio', the billionaire philanthropist lauds the extensive work undertaken in India by the "army" of more than two million vaccinators, who covered the length and breadth of the country in the effort to ensure every child is vaccinated against the disease.
"Indeed, India's accomplishment in eradicating polio is the most impressive global health success I've ever seen," Gates said in the essay adapted from his contribution to 'Reimagining India: Unlocking the Potential of Asia's Next Superpower' edited by McKinsey and published online in the Wall Street Journal.
"India's success offers a script for winning some of the world's most difficult battles in every area of human welfare," he added.
Gates attributed India's success in eradicating polio to the "crucial extra step" of enlisting support of the full sweep of Indian society, including health workers, ordinary citizens and some of the poorest people in the most impoverished regions of the country.
"I didn't know nearly as much about India as I do now. I saw India's obvious talent and energy, but I missed its hidden strength—the rich, the powerful and the poor working together toward a common goal," he added.
India has been polio-free for more than two years now but Gates said the accomplishments of India's vaccinators does not end with the eradication of polio alone.
"Now that they have found India's children, they can bring them and their families other vaccines, clean water, education, advice on maternal and child health, and support for agriculture—all the things that people need to live healthy and productive lives," he said.
Sending a caution note, Gates said the fight to end polio is not over, "not even in India.
"New polio cases emerging in the Horn of Africa and Syria underscore the importance of maintaining funding and commitment to eradicate the disease globally within six years," he said.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation began working in India a decade ago, when the Microsoft co-founder said many feared the country would become a flashpoint for HIV/AIDS.
"Melinda and I have seen many examples of India's poor making dramatic contributions. Experts predicted that polio would be eliminated in every other country before it was eliminated in India," Gates said in the essay."But nowhere has this power been demonstrated more clearly than in the fight to end polio, " Gates said recalling that he first began travelling to India in the 1980s, drawn by a fascination with this ancient country that cherishes its history and harbours great ambitions for the future.
"By the mid and late 1990s, the Americas were polio-free followed by China and in Europe but India was one of the last nations left that still had polio cases. This was no surprise.India's urban centres are among the world's most densely populated.Its rural communities are dispersed across a vast and often inaccessible terrain. The country suffers from poor sanitation, he said in the essay. "But India surprised them all. The country has now been polio-free for more than two years. The key has been the participation of the humblest, most vulnerable members of the Indian population," he said.
Gates said for any campaign of this magnitude to be successful there has to be a "clear goal, a comprehensive plan and precise measurements of progress. "The heart of the plan was a simple and inspiring mission, to find the children. To defeat polio, it is essential to achieve up to 95 per cent vaccination coverage in afflicted areas. "There is no way to measure whether you're meeting that mark unless you know how many children there are, where they are and whether they've been vaccinated," he said. According to Gates, India responded to the challenge with an army of more than two million vaccinators, who canvassed every village, hamlet and slum.
"Vaccinators took the best maps they had and made them better. They walked miles every day and worked late into the night.
They found children in the poorest areas of Uttar Pradesh and in the remote Kosi River area of Bihar, an area with no electricity that is often flooded and unreachable by roads.
They found the sons and daughters of migrant workers in bus stations and train stations, accompanying their families on their way to find work," Gates said.