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Fighting the polio scourge in India

John Hewko
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Administering polio drops to a child
Administering polio drops to a child

It's almost a cliché to describe India as a nation of contrasts, but as I return to the country after a 30 year hiatus to participate in the World Economic Forum's India Economic Summit in Mumbai, this still starkly stands out.

Economic growth

On one hand, India's economic growth rate at more than eight per cent in 2010 - has been truly impressive.

Adjusting the gross domestic product for purchasing power parity, India now ranks as the fourth largest economy in the world with an adjusted GDP of slightly more than $4 trillion.

We see signs of India's economic growth reflected in our organisation with the membership having grown to more than 1,16,000 Rotary club members, making it the second largest Rotary country behind the US with its 3,52,000 members.

Correspondingly, support from India for The Rotary Foundation, our charitable arm, has burgeoned in recent years. In 2001, India's Rotary members contributed about $3 million to the foundation.

Last year, contributions from India exceeded $10.5 million, fourth among all Rotary nations, behind only the US, Japan, and South Korea.

So it's no stretch to say Rotary has benefited - both in membership growth and support for the foundation - from India's steady climb up the global economic ladder. I should add that a portion of that support rebounds back to India in the form of humanitarian grants supporting projects that help people and communities in need.

Unfortunately - and here comes the aforementioned “contrast” - India also holds a singular distinction on the list of the world's top economies. It is the only country on the list where the wild polio virus has never been stopped. In fact, India is one of only four countries in the world where this crippling childhood disease remains endemic. The others are Afghanistan, Nigeria, and neighbouring Pakistan.

The fact that polio still persists in India helps illustrate India's dichotomy. Despite the nation's tremendous economic gains and growing middle class, the fact that many of its people still live near or below the poverty level means the country will need to continue to address the many challenges of poverty: disease, hunger, illiteracy, chronic water shortage, and inadequate sanitation, to cite just a few.

And here is where polio serves as a very useful measuring stick. Yes, poverty provides the polio virus – largely transmitted from child to child through fecal contamination - with the conditions it needs to thrive and spread.

But the good news is that any significant decrease in polio reflects a nation's capacity to respond effectively, and that's exactly what is happening in India. As of this writing, India - despite being an endemic country - has gone nearly 10 months without a confirmed polio case since recording a single infection in January.

Eradication Initiative

When Rotary helped launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, polio each year infected more than 3,50,000 children and young adults around the world. Many thousands of them were Indian children. In the ensuing years, more than two billion children in 122 countries received the oral polio vaccine, and the incidence of polio plummeted by more than 99 per cent. This year, there have been just over 500 cases worldwide.

Immunisation

The fact that only one of those cases is in India is a tremendous achievement that reflects the determination of the nation's leaders and its citizens to finally rid their country - and the world - of this terrible scourge.

So far, India's government has spent more than $1.2 billion on domestic polio eradication activities. India's Rotary club members likewise have played a very active role in fighting polio in their homeland, participating in the National Immunisation Days that reach millions of children with the vaccine.

To date, Indian Rotary members have contributed more than $11.6 million to Rotary's polio eradication programme.

It is fair to ask if eradicating polio will contribute directly to India's continued economic growth.

Most certainly, it will. For one, it will leave in place improved infrastructure and delivery systems that can be adapted to address other pressing public health needs crucial to development.

In strictly monetary terms, if polio is eradicated globally within the next few years, the world's total investment in the effort - now at more than $8 billion - will yield benefits estimated at $40-50 billion through 2035, according to a study published last year in the journal vaccine.

The benefits will stem largely from the reduction in health care costs and a corresponding increase in productivity, as more than ten million cases of polio paralysis are prevented. Most of the benefits will accrue in countries where polio lingered the longest.

During my stay in India, I plan to participate in polio immunisation activities. I look forward to my first opportunity to place the two-drop dose of oral vaccine into a child's mouth, knowing that the disease polio will never steal her future or her potential to grow into a productive, contributing member of society.

That's truly what India needs to continue its progress.

Mr John Hewko is General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer of Rotary International (Rotary is a member of the WEF) and the Rotary Foundation, spearheading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

(This article was published on November 13, 2011)
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