Later this month, India will clock three polio-free years, a milestone that will be officially certified in 2014 by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The last case of polio was reported from West Bengal in January 2011.

A WHO-appointed independent body is evaluating the ground situation and an announcement is expected possibly in February-March, says Ashok Mahajan, who heads Rotary’s Ulema Committee.

The committee played a key role in getting a handle on polio in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and parts of Malegaon (Maharasthra), where there was resistance against polio-vaccination in some minority pockets. The fear was that polio-vaccination would affect the child’s health.

From 66 cases in 2005, it went up to 800 and at one point the polio incidence was about 1600, of which 1200 came from UP, recounts Mahajan. The Ulema committee was formed in 2006, and the leaders gave oral polio drops to their children on camera and this was publicised in other parts of the State. “We never dreamt that it would be such a big success,” he says, as similar efforts were undertaken in Bihar and Malegaon, following UP’s success.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is led by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF.

Polio-free region

In fact, India belongs to a region with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, who are already polio-free. When India gets its polio-free status, the region becomes polio free.

Concern though remains, as Pakistan is one of three countries where polio is still to be eradicated - Afghanistan and Nigeria, being the other two.

Reports of polio-workers being attacked in Pakistan are worrisome, says Mahajan. The country has reported 84 polio cases in 2013, but health-workers are hopeful that the country will be polio free in another year, he added.

From later this month, India has mandated that travellers from and to Pakistan take the polio vaccine to prevent the wild polio-virus from re-entering India.

Polio surveillance needs to be stronger than ever, says Nitin Shah, former head of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, especially since 17 polio-free countries got re-infected by the wild polio virus. Shah also suggests a shift from the oral to injectible vaccines, to prevent the sporadic cases of vaccine-derived polio that surface in the country. The hitch here, though, is cost, with injectibles (at Rs 200 – 300) being more expensive than the oral vaccine (at Rs 10-15), in the retail market, he points out.

Given the real and imminent danger of re-infection, India will continue with its oral polio vaccine campaign till the world is polio free, a milestone that is expected in 2018, points out Mahajan.

But the celebration of India’s achievement will take place, come January 13, when iconic buildings across cities - including Air India in Mumbai, India Gate and Red Fort in Delhi and possibly the Assembly building in Bangalore, besides railway stations in other cities -- will be all light-up with the message that India is polio-free, he said.


Source: WHO