Standing tall

India’s decades-long effort to rid the country of polio has reached an important milestone. For the third straight year in a row, no new polio case has been reported in the country. This means the country is now ‘polio-free.’ The World Health Organisation will make a formal declaration to this effect in a month. India can draw immense satisfaction from the achievement as it is not a small one.

Five years ago, India, which was home to the largest number of victims of polio, accounted for half the new polio cases worldwide. So ideal were conditions for the spread of the polio virus, that health workers were unanimous in their view that India would be the last country to eradicate polio. But they have been proved wrong. Over the last few years, new polio cases have been declining steadily from 741 in 2009 to just one in 2011. 

It was in 1988 that the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched to systematically rid the world of polio. As part of that initiative, India carried out the Pulse Polio Immunisation campaign. The campaign was not easy. Crores of children had to be vaccinated. Parents had to be convinced that immunisation would benefit their children. There were any number of spoilers too. In Uttar Pradesh, for instance, conservative and often ignorant clerics engaged in a disinformation campaign that immunisation was harmful.

Those immunised would become sterile, they said.  Importantly, health workers found they were unable to reach the children of migrant parents. Each time an obstacle arose, health officials and community workers sat together to find a way to overcome them. It is because of their determined efforts to immunise every child come what may that India is polio-free today. India’s success in the war against polio underscores the fact that with political will, we can overcome formidable public health challenges.

In 1988, 125 countries were polio endemic. Today only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria continue to report new cases. They must draw on India’s experience and also be inspired by its story. If India could get rid of polio, so can they. We can justifiably celebrate the achievement in fighting polio, but not become complacent. The virus did return in some countries such as China, Syria and Tajikistan after they were declared polio-free. Health workers must keep up their vigil to ensure that the virus does not strike again. 

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