For India to achieve “polio-free” status by January next year, officials and volunteers are staging “National Immunisation Days”, held regularly across the country, aiming to reach more than 170 million children under five – the group most at risk from polio. Every child receives two drops of oral vaccine, and then has their finger marked with an indelible ink, affectionately known as getting their ‘purple pinkie’. Every effort is made to reach every child, from announcements being made through loudspeakers installed on rickshaws in city slums to polio vaccination booths operating at railway stations and bus stands.
In recent memory India was the epicentre of polio. In 1985, it had an estimated 150,000 cases and as recently as 2009 there were 741, more than any other country in the world. But its last case was in January 2011. However, it won’t be officially removed from the list of polio endemic countries until the result of lab tests confirm that it is no longer to be found in sewage. That confirmation is expected in the next few weeks. This is a remarkable achievement for a country where young victims of polio can still be seen with misshapen limbs begging at traffic lights throughout the main cities.
The campaign to eradicate polio in India was launched by its government in 1999 and has been supported by international health charities and groups like Rotary in whose volunteers, including many from Britain, have helped distribute the vaccines. The Indian government has also been joined in partnership by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Last year the UK government doubled its support to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI).
Looking beyond India, three endemic countries remain: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, where the virus has never been under control. All saw an increase in cases last year. Nearly a third of cases were in Pakistan, where, similarly to Afghanistan, immunisation has been hampered by conflict and instability. Without progress in India’s two neighbours, the spectre of reinfection will remain. In Nigeria local opposition to polio immunisation has been a problem in recent years.
Global efforts are now on a precipice; while the trickle of positive news out of India this year has emboldened the drive towards eradication, concerning trends elsewhere remind those involved of the importance of vigilance and persistence. The prize of eradicating the first human infectious disease since smallpox in 1979 is one worth striving for.
To explore further, you can watch this report from the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17072769
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