India’s success in eradicating polio is the single greatest global health achievement I have ever witnessed. Less than a decade ago, if you’d asked the experts to guess which country would be the last to wipe out the virus, almost all of them would have answered ‘India’. But today, India can take pride in being officially polio-free. While a lot of credit goes to the partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the lion’s share belongs to the Government of India and the people. The country financed and staffed its own massive polio programme, making this victory uniquely India’s.
It is hard to overstate the enormity of this task. To get rid of polio, it was necessary to vaccinate almost every child. If the programme hadn’t reached children in every corner of the country, it would have failed.
And India may be the hardest place on the planet to vaccinate every child. The country has some of the most densely populated urban areas in the world, making it a challenge to track children polio workers have immunised. It has some of the most remote villages, including ones that are impossible to reach for months on end during the rainy season. And that isn’t taking into account the families who don’t live anywhere in particular, because they are constantly on the move.
In 1988, when there were approximately 3,50,000 new polio cases a year and the disease was crippling children in 125 countries, the World Health Assembly set the ambitious goal of eliminating polio world-wide. At first, progress came quickly. By 1994, the Americas were polio-free. Soon we saw the last case in China, the last case in the Pacific, the last case in Europe. By 2000, the number of polio cases had dropped by 99%. But the task of ending polio was not 99% achieved because the final countries were also the most challenging ones.
India was up to the challenge, with two million vaccinators reaching more than 170 million children with the vaccine, and the unfailing support of members from organisations like Rotary International. Now, other programmes are using the polio microplans to reach the most vulnerable children with the health services they need most, including other life-saving vaccines.
Polio is still circulating in three countries. There is a plan to finish the job and eradicate the disease completely by 2018. It can be done, but it will require commitment. India showed what that commitment looks like.
Bill Gates is co-chair and trustee, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The views expressed by the author are personal