Immunisation best bet to prevent polio

The Pulse Polio Immunisation (PPI) programme was launched by the Government of India in 1995 under the WHO’s Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Every year, children below the age of 5 are given two doses of the oral polio vaccine (OPV) in the months of December and January.

OPV is the primary vaccine that offers protection from
polio while the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) is administered to strengthen the immune system and provide continued protection. India was declared polio-free by the WHO in 2014, a status we continued to bask under until recent reports on the shortage of both OPV and IPV.

The government invariably postponed the polio national immunisation day campaign with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare writing to states informing them of the same. Only Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala had stock. Some reasons for this shortage include lack of funding, lower domestic production, and longer testing procedures to ensure safety.

The latter was due to the fact that the Ghaziabad-based Bio-Med’s vaccines were found contaminated with type 2 polio virus recently. Only two firms — Bharat Biotech and Panacea Biotec — manufacture the vaccine now.

India thus faces the spectre of a paralysing disease once again — a disease that had been eradicated. Apart from these concerns is the fact that many people, especially those in the Tier 2 and 3 segments of the country — remote areas in particular — lack awareness about the importance of immunisation in preventing this debilitating and highly contagious disease.

The virus that causes polio infects the nervous system. The symptoms range from loss of reflexes, severe spasms and muscle pain, loose and floppy limbs, to sudden paralysis, and temporary or permanent deformed limbs, especially the hips, ankles, and feet.

Even without the symptoms, people infected with polio virus can spread it and cause infection in others. About 1% of the cases can develop into paralytic polio. The virus can hibernate in the human body for a long time and in children who are not vaccinated, the chances of it becoming active later in life are high. Vaccination helps in the production of antibodies, thereby preparing the immune system for a possible attack from the polio virus.

It is imperative to give the polio vaccine immediately after the neonate is born. There are people who believe that one dosage of the vaccine is enough to prevent the attack from the virus. However, only full doses of the OPV can help prevent the infection. It is also one of the safest vaccines available in India.

Vaccination critical

The need of the hour is an awareness that although improved public sanitation and careful personal hygiene can help reduce the spread of polio, prevention is only possible with the vaccine.

The government-launched immunisation programmes, since the last three decades, are an indicator of how critical vaccination is, especially against a disease like polio. Despite large-scale awareness drives and efforts, the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) has been able to fully immunise only 65% children during the first year of their lives.

Government regulations mandate that every hospital and primary healthcare centre should conduct regular immunisation once a week. Multipurpose health workers and social health activists go about promoting and canvassing the benefits of immunisation programme among rural communities as well.

To re-energise the UIP, the government has further launched Mission Indradhanush under which it intends to ensure full immunisation with all available vaccines for infants up to two years of age. The aim was to achieve at least 90% coverage by 2020. Again, the launch of Intensified Mission Indradhanush aimed at accelerating this process further.

Vaccines are very important to the overall well-being of mankind, especially children. Maintaining an effective and timely immunisation record can not only prevent a prolonged illness such as polio but also heavy long term financial burden on the family.

The government’s directive to bring immunisation cover to a larger segment of children in the country is therefore only possible with continued efforts and by creating greater awareness to dispel vaccine hesitancy and lack of knowledge among communities.

(The writer is Medical Director, Portea Medical)

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