India on Wednesday completed five years of being polio-free. Polio is a highly infectious viral disease that leads to irreversible paralysis and used to cripple more than 50,000 children in the country each year in the early 90s.
The last case of polio in the country was reported from Howrah district in West Bengal on January 13, 2011. In the national Capital, the last case was reported in June 2009.
In 2009, India had half the number of polio cases in the world, and in less than two years, the country brought polio infections down to zero.
Three years after no case was reported anywhere from the south-east Asia region, as is the mandatory period, World Health Organisation (WHO) declared it polio-free.
“Completing half a decade without any case of wild poliovirus is an achievement and a reminder that we need to continue our effort until the disease is completely eradicated. Globally, polio transmission is at its lowest ever levels, however, the risks of importation of the poliovirus into all polio-free areas persist,” Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director for WHO South-East Asia.
Since, the Polio virus is still in circulation in India’s neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, India cannot afford to drop its guard.
Last year in December, officials in Delhi were alarmed when a two-year-old living in East Delhi’s Shahdara area was diagnosed with the rare P2 strain of poliovirus. It was, however, found that the polio was vaccine-derived. The baby girl had received her routine oral vaccines, but, instead of creating antibodies, the live attenuated (reduced in virulence) virus started circulating in her body.
“The emergence of Vaccine Derived Polio Virus (VDPV) does not jeopardize the polio-free status of India. India has stopped transmission of indigenous wild poliovirus and is, therefore, still considered polio-free,” read a WHO statement.
There is only one-in-a-million chance of acquiring polio from the vaccine. However, to eliminate the risk all together, the government, along with the oral polio vaccine, recently introduced injectible inactivated polio vaccine (IPV), comprising the three heat-killed strains of poliovirus, in its national immunisation programme.
The IPV dose will be given along with the oral polio vaccine dose, making it impossible to contract vaccine-derived polio.
“The most important thing is to improve community resistance to the virus by providing routine immunisation to every child. The biggest problem in a place like Delhi is the massive migratory population; however, the national drive ensures that every child receives the polio drops regardless of whether they are in Delhi or their native place,” said Dr CM Khanijo, officer on special duty, Pulse Polio Cell, Delhi.
The current priorities of the pulse polio programme are to intensify surveillance, cover the high-risk areas and migrant and mobile population and remain prepared for any emergency.
The same strategies and resources that have been used to stop polio can be used to achieve other public health goals, feel experts.
“Our efforts to stop polio and keep the region polio-free have been possible due to numerous innovative strategies that helped in strengthening immunisation and disease surveillance. While these lessons learnt are now being adopted by remaining endemic areas, countries in the Region need to replicate these strategies and optimally use the polio programme resources for other public health goals, particularly in the areas of immunisation, surveillance and emergency response,” said Singh.