Could India be free of the highly infectious wild poliovirus? The signs are it may well be so,with the last case of poliomyelitis having been reported in West Bengal exactly a year ago. It is a rare,inspiring triumph for India in healthcare,with amped-up,extensive awareness and implementation programmes working in tandem. These have ensured that precious drops of oral poliovirus vaccine repeatedly reached children in cities and villages. The drive was active even on trains and buses,for children of mobile population like migrant workers.
A debilitating disease that affects the nervous system,especially of children below five years,with 1 in 200 chances of acute paralysis,polio has no cure. It can only be vaccinated against. And that has been the great hurdle for a country considered one of the epicentres of the wild poliovirus (to distinguish it from the vaccine virus): India reported 741 cases in 2009,the highest in the world that year. Since 1988,with the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative,the battle has been against three types of wild poliovirus. Type 2 was eradicated in just over a decade; type 3,after a furious outbreak in 2009 and a consequent intense immunisation drive,was reported last in India in 2010; and now the last case of type 1 was reported on January 13,2011 the year-long break the reason for this collective sigh of relief.
India could soon be taken off the list of four countries considered endemic to polio in 2011 Pakistan,Afghanistan and Nigeria being the other three. To understand the tenacity of the global fight against polio,consider the number of polio-endemic countries in 1988: over 125. However the challenge for India now is to sustain this drive against the wild poliovirus that is known to circulate before striking pockets of children with low immunity levels. India will have to record at least two more years of zero-polio case to be recognised as polio-free. Equally importantly,the diligence and doggedness of this fight against the wild poliovirus should be a template for our other healthcare programmes,including against malnutrition.