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Marking its first year without any polio cases, India takes a giant leap toward wiping out the disease

© Sebastiao Salgado/Amazonas Images
In 2001, health workers go door-to-door in the village of Dadupar, in Moradabad District, to immunize children. Individual houses are then marked with chalk, indicating that they have been covered.

By Priyanka Pruthi

NEW YORK, USA, 12 January 2012 – Once recognized as the epicenter of the polio epidemic, India is now on the verge of creating history by stopping the transmission of polio.

As of tomorrow, 13 January, the country will not have reported a single case of the crippling disease in 12 months – making it the longest polio-free period in India. If all pending laboratory investigations return negative, the World Health Organization (WHO) will take India off the list of countries where polio remains endemic.

This is an unparalleled victory, a major milestone and arguably the country’s greatest public health achievement.

Incredible achievement

India has been one the chief reservoirs of wild poliovirus for decades. In 2009, there were more children affected by polio in India than anywhere else in the world.

But millions of persistent and committed health workers battled against the disease, injecting new hope and enthusiasm in the eradication efforts. This massive army of volunteers attacked polio in the most vulnerable, remote areas, and vaccinated migrant populations inside running trains, at bus stands and in market places.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Priyanka Pruthi reports on a major milestone in India's efforts to eradicate polio.  Watch in RealPlayer


“India’s achievement is proof positive that we can eradicate polio even in the most challenging environments – in fact, it is only by targeting these areas that we can defeat this evil disease,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

The numbers are astounding – some 900 million doses of the oral polio vaccine were administered in 2011 alone by approximately 8,500 mobilizers. More than 170 million children under age 5 were vaccinated in two national immunization campaigns, with up to 70 million children in the highest-risk areas vaccinated multiple times.

According to Mr. Lake, the strong leadership of the Indian government has been key to the country’s success. The Government of India launched a comprehensive polio eradication program that has sustained high immunization coverage in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which have extreme poverty, high population density, and poor sanitation and infrastructure – conditions in which contagious viral disease like polio thrive.

Powerful partnerships

The Polio Eradication Programme in India is a collaborative effort between the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, WHO’s National Polio Surveillance Project, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Within the partnership, UNICEF has been supplying vaccines, managing logistics, and leading communication and social mobilization strategies.

Bollywood celebrities like Amitabh Bachchan have also worked with UNICEF to promote eradication efforts. Mr. Bachchan, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, persuaded parents to vaccinate their children through a series of award-winning television and radio commercials, and highlighted the issue in field visits and public appearances. He also helped launch a new immunization campaign last month, encouraging parents to “make polio history in India.”

VIDEO: UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan congratulates India on its first polio-free year in history.  Watch in RealPlayer


“The partners have been there to provide technical inputs, as well as human and financial resources,” said UNICEF Health Communication Specialist Jeffrey Bates. “But the role of the Indian government was unique… The government took a very active role in determining how the eradication program would move forward in the Indian context. This was done at the national, state and district levels. The Indian government also dedicated a tremendous amount of resources – financial and human – to the program in a way we’ve not seen replicated in any other country.”

Bringing a human face to the herculean task of vaccinating every child against polio, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and renowned Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado documented eradication efforts in his 2003 book ‘The End of Polio: A Global Effort to End a Disease’. "I have witnessed terrible atrocities: genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing in southern Europe, famine in northern Africa, injustices that are overwhelmingly caused by humankind,” said Mr. Salgado. “The immense efforts to eradicate polio have renewed my hope, my faith in solutions.”

Wiping out polio

Despite the optimism, the threat of establishing polio transmission again is very real. The focus now is on preventing the re-importation of the virus to India from neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, which, along with Nigeria, are the only other countries where the disease remains endemic. In 2011, Pakistan and Afghanistan saw alarming increases in polio cases, and poliovirus from Pakistan re-infected China – which had been polio-free since 1999.

And the persistence of polio anywhere in the world poses a risk to children everywhere. India’s progress proves that it is possible to break the barriers to eradication – technical and social – that remain.

“The power of vaccination against polio is enormous, it's such a wonderful solution to such a horrible disease,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta, “and to think that there are children who don't have access to that vaccine is devastating."

“We have the ability to protect every last person, especially children, from this entirely preventable disease,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. “Because we can, we must finish the job of eradicating polio globally, once and for all.”



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