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Polio has gone from India but the danger is still there

ht-view Updated: Mar 29, 2014 02:37 IST
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Everyone loves a success story, especially one of this magnitude. By not having a single polio case for over three years now, India has shown the world that there is no such thing as impossible.

India is now free of a virus that killed and crippled children for centuries. Many critics believed that this day would never come, that the polio virus was too firmly entrenched and that India would never be polio-free. The naysayers, however, missed one decisive factor: the power of India’s determination to achieve the impossible. From half of the world’s polio burden in 2009, India saw its last case on January 13, 2011.

How did India do this?

First, the government ownership of the eradication initiative, at union, state, and district levels, was decisive, as were the crores of rupees put into the effort by the government.

Secondly, India worked together seamlessly with its international partners including Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO), with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Thirdly, with the support of WHO, India built a world-class surveillance system that surpasses the globally recommended standards and indicators. This was a game-changer in the fight against polio and a critical component of its success.

In 1997, WHO, in collaboration with the Indian government, established the National Polio Surveillance Project to provide technical support in high-risk areas for polio surveillance and mass polio vaccination campaigns.

Fourthly, constant research produced evidence for the fine-tuning of strategies.

Fifthly, the vast army of vaccinators and frontline workers, working in extremely harsh situations, not only delivered but went beyond the call of duty.

Sixthly, it needed innovative and creative strategies to beat a very stubborn virus, be it the strategy to reach the under-served people, areas hard to reach or migrant populations. Special communication strategies and social mobilisation efforts were needed to improve awareness and acceptance of the polio vaccine by all sections of the community.

All of this is reflected in the sheer scale of the polio programme. Sample a few statistics. Each nation-wide polio campaign involves the vaccination of nearly 170 million children in more than 225 million households by an army of 2.3 million vaccinators.

However, the polio-free status of every country remains under threat as long as the polio virus is still circulating anywhere in the world. India, however, is fully aware of the need to safeguard its magnificent achievement.

Importantly, the country is using the legacy of its polio success to intensify routine immunisation, with special emphasis on reaching the under-served and marginalised people.

Margaret Chan is director-general, World Health Organization
The views expressed by the author are personal