Another four months and India will finally become a Polio free country. The disease that has left thousands of children crippled for life has been overpowered by the country’s Polio eradication programme. India had already achieved the milestone when it was removed from the list of Polio endemic countries by the World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2012; becoming Polio free would be amongst the biggest achievements of the country.
Other than the case in May 2013, wherein an 11-month-old infant was infected with the Polio virus and subsequently died, India has not reported a Polio case since January 2011. So clearly, we have come a long way.
While, on the one hand, this case is being investigated, on the other, India is receiving accolades and appreciation for her efforts.
WHO director general Margaret Chan said, “It has been 30 months and there has not been a single case (of Polio),” and praised Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad’s efforts in this direction.
The Health Minister said, “The long and worthwhile journey has been made possible due to the strong political will and continuous leadership at the highest levels of government and undivided support of WHO, translating into adequate financial resources, vastly improved coverage, dedicated officers and massive efforts by more than two million volunteers.”
The fight against Polio was indeed a very big one, just like our independence struggle. Children across the country were getting infected by this deadly virus; a virus that literally turned their lives around. Many of them lost the opportunity to a secure future because their disease did not allow them to finish school or get employment.
A fight that lasted so long and confronted us with so many challenges should be looked at more closely. So, here’s what you need to know about Polio and the campaign to eradicateit.
What Is Polio?
Polio is an infectious disease which spreads from person to person. When the virus enters the central nervous system, it infects the motor neurons causing muscle weakness and paralysis.
Why Was Its Control Necessary?
Control over Polio was extremely necessary as it affected a person not just health wise but economically as well. After independence, the diseases that were brought under focus by the government were tuberculosis, malaria, leprosy and kala azar, but Polio was left out. The vaccines that were available back then were not effective enough even if the dose was increased.
During the 1970s and 1980s, India had become hyper endemic and continued to be as it moved into the early 1990s, with 200,000 to 400,000 cases that were identified annually. On an average, 500 to 1000 children developed paralysis from Polio each day. This meant that one percent of the infants that were born would contract Polio for sure.
Not only was the situation severely affecting the economy of the nation, it was also adversely affecting the economic situation of the patient because of the medical expenditure that he or she needed to incur. The expenditure included travel fare, treatment fare, rehabilitation and costs of calipers, wheel chair etc. Many parents had to give up their jobs to take care of their child. This further deteriorated their economic condition.
With so many cases of Polio, there was a 50 percent loss to annual productivity, which in turn affected the per capita gross national product. The Indian economy faced a loss of 15 lakh rupees per paralyzed child and the total annual loss was over 45,000 crore rupees. What’s important is that India suffered from this health and subsequent economic deterioration all through the 70s and the 80s.
These statistics called for the implementation of desperate measures to control Polio.
Polio Eradication Timeline
In 1974, the WHO launched the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) and India adopted it in 1978. The vaccines to fight Polio, DPT and BCG, were already being manufactured for public use; the EPI aimed to look at a large scale supply of these same vaccines. But when their manufacture was discontinued in 1974, Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) was imported for use in EPI. However, even with the arrival of new vaccines the number of Polio cases did not dip for 10 years.
Then an increased dosage of the OPV was administered on children. It was started in Vellore, Tamil Nadu, by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in 1985. The incidence of Polio dropped and the numbers were lower than the pre-EPI era. However, for control, the figures of Polio incidence needed to decline by 95 percent.
In 1994, a pilot mass vaccination program that was conducted in New Delhi turned out to be successful. It inspired Indian officials to garner the political will, money, resources, and massive labor force together and implement this program in the rest of the country. The government collaborated with Rotary International, UNICEF and WHO to eradicate the disease. Local religious leaders, medical officers, universities, teachers and film actors (remember Amitabh Bachchan’s “ Do Boond Zindagi Ki” advertisement) joined in and advertised the Polio vaccine across the country.
There were close to 2.5 million vaccinators deployed across India to vaccinate 172 million children during India’s last national “Polio Sunday” vaccination drive in February. The teams administered the vaccines at booths and then travelled for five days across the country to administer vaccines door-to-door throughout city slums, housing projects, and rural villages. The service was also provided at bus stops, train stations and cultural festivals. They focused especially in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which have the highest birth rate in the country, as well as the most amount of migration. Therefore, chances of high incidence rate existed here.
The surveillance system records the number of children vaccinated every year, and also has the data of each child. With such close monitoring, the chances of missing out on children that need to be vaccinated are less than one percent.
With such incredible efforts, the journey has fetched fruits.
Statistics Of Polio Cases
Even though we may be Polio-free by next year, that doesn’t mean we become careless. It’s better to be safe than sorry, don’t you think?
People can get infected again if the virus gets imported. We share our border with Pakistan that is still on the list of Polio endemic countries along with Afghanistan and Nigeria. This makes us vulnerable and at risk of contracting the virus. India itself has exported the contagious virus to Nepal, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Angola, China and Tajikistan. Therefore, we must not stop immunization programs right away.
Since the year 2000, 44 countries that were Polio free have actually suffered from one or more Polio importations. Therefore, Polio immunization programs continue to be carried out across India’s international borders.
Even though there has been one case of Polio in the last year, looking at the efforts against eradication of Polio, we can still say that India will be Polio free very soon.
It is a remarkable feat for India to have eradicated Polio completely. Those who believed that India could never be free of the virus, that India could not achieve its goal or that the virus is inescapable, have been silenced.
Years later, we have finally won the battle. But, it was only possible because there was unity. Think about the thousands of children that are safe now. It’s a job well done and one we should be proud of.
Do you think this unity would be equally efficient in the eradication of other preventable diseases? Write in your opinions in the comment box below.