It is a matter of shame that after a 10-year-long battle, India is yet to eradicate polio. What is worse is the World Health Organisation’s statement that India is ‘exporting’ the virus to polio-free countries, thus endangering their child populations. India has slackened its pace in addressing this issue. This was made obvious earlier this year with a WHO-Unicef study showing that in Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district alone, 12 per cent of the child population was left out of the polio-vaccination programme, as compared to 8 per cent last year. Today, UP has 138 of the 155 polio cases reported this year.
India took up the challenge of eradicating polio in 1995 after it adopted the WHO’s Pulse Polio campaign that has been successful in 150 countries. This entailed universal polio vaccination on designated National Immunisation Days (NIDs) where all children up to the age of five were given the oral vaccine. In 2000, staggering amounts of foreign funds came in to bolster what was expected to be the last leg of the battle. Six years later, most of the country is polio-free, but it remains at risk of a relapse due to migration from the high-risk zones of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Delhi.
The case of Moradabad seems to be emblematic of the problem as a whole — people are more wary of the vaccine than they are of the virus. Despite resistance from sections of the Muslim community to the polio eradication programme, the WHO and religious bodies have not been able to dispel the myths that lead to such resistance. Also, the delivery mechanism that India chose to dispense the vaccine — opting for the oral form over the injectible one — has been contentious. Health workers also report that the cold chain required to keep the oral vaccine active fails all too often. The consequences are obvious.
In 1995, the deadline to rid India of polio was 2000. In 2000, the deadline was 2001, which was then shifted to 2005. In 2006, we are yet to know what the ‘new deadline’ is. Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss was hopeful that India would be polio-free this year. It is for the government to realise that to wipe out polio from India, it first needs to eradicate three things: one, the siphoning of funds; two, the fudging of figures; and three, the resistance to the immunisation drive from certain quarters. All this is tied up in an unholy nexus and poses a real hindrance to the national effort. Spending close to $ 100 million on each Pulse Polio day, it will be a shame if human failings continue to come in the way of a polio-free India.