A limp is all that sets Ruksha Shah, 5, apart from other girls of her age in her home in Subharara village in the Panchla block of the Howrah district of West Bengal. It’s the only remnant of the polio infection that ravaged her in 2011, which left her right leg a little shorter and weaker than the left.
Ruksha’s the last recorded case of polio — on January 13, 2011 — in India, and if the nation’s polio eradication programme stays on track, it may well be India’s last. Being declared polio-free means the virus has died in the environment and new cases, if any, would be caused by infection in another country where infection persists.
“Ruksha is cured though she feels A little pain in the affected right leg when she runs. Earlier, many of us did not take our babies to get polio drops, but now most have understood the deadliness of the infection,” said her father Abdul Shah, a zari embroidery-worker with a monthly income of Rs 2,000.
Recurrent diahrroea, swelling and pain in the right leg were the first signs of polio, recalls her father. “We took from her one hospital to another and finally the state-run ID Hospital in Kolkata diagnosed it as a case of polio. She was treated there and got cured,” he said.
Villagers in Panchla where the country’s last polio case was reported are still extremely resistant to vaccination. Many families of the mainly minorities-dominated villages in Panchla block, about 50 km away from Kolkata, still believe —wrongly — that vaccines cause infertility and do not get their children vaccinated.
“We have some pockets in Howrah, South 24 Parganas and even in Metiaburuz in Kolkata where people are highly resistant to polio immunisation,” said Dr S K Seal, deputy director health services in charge of the polio eradication programme. On each Pulse Polio Day, 97 lakh children under 5 years are given polio drops across West Bengal.
HT visited several villages including Subharara, Beldubi, Golpara and Biti Hakola around the Kulai Rural Hospital and found many families have not got their children immunised, which can result in new infection and outbreaks and threaten India’s efforts to eradicate polio.
A recent WHO report said pulse polio immunisation-awareness programmes are yet to gain momentum in Howrah and South 24 Parganas district, where about 2,000 polio booths are set up during each vaccination round to immunise children.
“Around 500 families are still strongly reluctant to get their babies vaccinated with pulse polio oral drops. On behalf of the government, we, along with UNICEF and NGOs, are conducting regular awareness programmes and have got a positive response from some conservative families."
"Many, unfortunately, are still against immunisation,” Dr Prasanta Biswas, polio monitoring officer in charge of Howrah.
Religious leaders are regularly invited to raise health awareness.
“They have read out the religious texts to persuade villagers to look after their children’s health. Panchla block is the most sensitive area in the state because of the last reported case was from here, but about 5 % of the roughly 30,000 children up to five years who need to be vaccinated are yet to be immunised with polio drops,” said Dr Biswas.
What is polio?
Polio (poliomyelitis) is an infectious disease caused by a virus that invades the nervous system through the mouth (faecal-oral route). Initial symptoms are fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiffness in the neck and pain in the limbs. One in 200 infections cause irreversible paralysis, usually in the legs. About one in 10 of those paralysed die.
Who is the most at risk?
Polio mainly affects children under 5 years.
Can polio be cured?
There is no cure for polio, but it can be prevented. Polio vaccine (drops), given multiple times till the age of 5, protect a child for life.
How many oral polio drops does a child need?
A child should get four doses of oral polio vaccine in the first year with supplementary doses till the age of five on the immunisation days.
How is a country declared polio free?
Before a country can be certified polio-free, it should have at least three years of zero polio cases. Since the launch of the 1988 Global Polio Eradication Initiative to eradicate polio, 5 million people - mainly in the developing world - who would otherwise have been paralysed, will be free of polio.