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India no longer a polio-endemic country

By Shamila Sharma

NEW DELHI, India, 1 March 2012 – On Saturday, 25 February, 2012, India was officially struck off the list of polio-endemic countries by the World Health Organization (WHO), having gone more than one year without reporting any cases of wild poliovirus. India’s success leaves only three countries in the world considered polio-endemic – meaning they have never stopped indigenous wild poliovirus transmission – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2646/Pietrasik
A health worker administers an oral polio vaccine to a toddler in Uttar Pradesh, India. Another health worker marks his finger to indicate that he has been immunized.

The announcement was celebrated across India as arguably its greatest public health achievement. As recently as 2009, India accounted for nearly half of all cases of polio, and was long considered one of the most difficult places in the world to eradicate the crippling disease.

India recorded only one case of polio throughout 2011, when a child in Howrah, West Bengal, was paralyzed on 13 January. The country has not recorded a case since, a fact corroborated by monthly sensitive environmental testing conducted in sewage sites in New Delhi, Mumbai and Patna, leading WHO to determine that, for the first time, India has successfully stopped transmission of polio.

© Rotary International
Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh speaks about India's achievement at the Polio Summit 2012 in New Delhi, India.

A letter written by WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan and delivered to the Government of India on the morning of the Polio Summit 2012 in New Delhi confirmed the news.

Reaching every child

“It gives me great pleasure to announce that the World Health Organization has taken India’s name off the list of polio-endemic countries,” said Ghulam Nabi Azad, India’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare, at the Polio Summit, a two-day event dedicated to planning polio eradication efforts. The announcement was met with thundering applause and a standing ovation by more than 1,000 Summit participants.

“The unprecedented progress gives us hope that we can eradicate polio not only from India but from the face of the earth,” said Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh.

The achievement was the result of a massive collaborative effort between Union and State Governments, which worked in close partnership with communities and international organizations including UNICEF, WHO, Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2646/Pietrasik
A doctor immunizes an infant against polio in Uttar Pradesh, India.

“The real credit goes to the 2.3 million volunteers who repeatedly vaccinated children, even in the most remote areas, often in very bad weather conditions,” the Prime Minister said. “I commend each one of them for their dedication, commitment and selfless service.”

In recent years polio immunization rounds in the two traditionally polio-endemic states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, had crossed 99 per cent. “This level of coverage is unprecedented – not witnessed anywhere in the world on such a large scale,” said Mr. Azad. He also acknowledged the tireless efforts of the frontline workers and the parents of 174 million children who benefitted from the polio programme.

Fight against polio not over

“We have won the battle but the war is not yet over,” said Mr. Azad. “Let us today rededicate ourselves and resolve that we will continue our efforts with the same vigour, so that India can be declared [certified] polio-free by 2014.”

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2646/Pietrasik
Bottles of polio vaccine sit on the table in a doctor's office in Uttar Pradesh, India.

The Indian Government is “acutely aware” that it cannot drop its guard, Mr. Azad continued. “We are excited and hopeful, at the same time, vigilant and alert. We are highly mindful of the risks that persist, not only on account of residual indigenous transmission but also from other countries,” he said.

Stressing that there is no room for complacency, Mr. Azad said the programme needs to continue with full force until polio is eradicated globally.

Following the announcement, Summit participants deliberated on how to ensure that the momentum against polio is maintained. It provided a platform for all the key players – government, partners, donors and frontline workers – to renew and reinforce their commitment to ridding India of polio once and for all.



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