India What 2 Years Without Polio Mean For India

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1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
What Two Years Without Polio Mean for India

By Saptarishi Dutta

On Jan. 13, 2011, doctors confirmed Rukhsaar Khatoon, a two year-old from the state of West Bengal, had polio. The disease was painful, but it didn’t hit her too badly – a slight limp being the only, visible evidence of her illness, the Hindu reported last year.

Since baby Rukhsaar was diagnosed, exactly two years ago, no cases of polio have been confirmed in India. On Jan. 13, 2013 the country completed two years since the last case of the crippling disease was reported.

This is a huge achievement for a country that as recently as 2009 reported 741 cases of polio – more than any other country in the world, and almost half of cases reported globally that year.

Naveen Thacker, a doctor and polio expert, says this success “has practically changed the way the world looks towards us.”

The rest of the world now “looks to us with a lot of respect,” added Mr. Thacker, who is a member of the India Expert Advisory Group, a body that provides technical assistance to the government on polio eradication.

It wasn’t easy. It took nearly 30 years for India to eradicate polio since vaccines against it were first made available. The country’s vast population, as well as poor hygiene conditions, were major hurdles in containing the transmission of the virus, which spreads mainly through contaminated food and water. Children are most vulnerable to the virus, which attacks the nervous system, leading to paralysis and sometimes death.

In 1995, 88 million children were vaccinated in the country’s first major immunization drive, a major step towards defeating the virus.

Two years later, the World Health Organization and the government of India jointly set up the National Polio Surveillance Project with the aim of mapping and identifying children who need to be vaccinated across the country. The government said it had spent a total of 120 billion rupees ($2.2 billion) on eradicating polio as of 2011.

Philanthropic organizations – including Rotary International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – contributed significantly to the fight against polio, through awareness campaigns and by funding technical and medical assistance.

Thanks to immunization and awareness campaigns, in 1999 India succeeded in getting rid of one common and relatively mild form of the virus, known as “Type 2.”

Another turning point was the introduction, in 2010, of a new vaccine that gave effective immunization against the two most dangerous forms of the polio virus, “Type 1” and “Type 3.” Earlier vaccines were not as effective.

To prevent polio from resurfacing, every year the government organizes two national immunization days. As many as 170 million children are immunized each time. Health workers also go door-to-door to check whether children have been vaccinated.

Spreading awareness is almost as important, and is a cause that has been actively promoted by celebrities, including Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan.

To attract more children to the immunization camps, authorities had devised innovative strategies. ”We started distributing little giveaways like whistles and toys,” said Deepak Kapur, chairman of the India National Polio Plus Committee, an organization that helps the government with immunization campaigns. This tactic worked well, he added.

Still, no country is safe from polio so long as it exists somewhere in the world. China had reported a case in 2011, which was traced to a visitor from Pakistan. Before this incident, the last polio case in the country was reported in 1994.

India’s success story is something countries that still suffer from polio can learn from, say experts. Polio is still endemic in three countries: Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, according to the World Health Organization. India was removed from the list of polio-endemic countries in 2012.

To keep polio under control, India needs to continue with its immunization process and maintain high surveillance, experts say. “We can’t lose our vigil,” said Mr. Thacker.

But even though India has made huge advances in removing polio, it lags behind in combating other diseases. These include encephalitis, which is common in parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Last year, more than 1000 children died of this disease.

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