ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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We Have Overcome

India wins the war on polio; now it needs to be extra vigilant.

After successfully eradicating smallpox in 1980, India has now gone three straight years without reporting any new case of poliomyelitis infection (“polio”). This qualifies it to receive the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) certification for being polio-free. Undoubtedly, this is a victory that has been fought every inch of the way by myriad agencies on a number of fronts and against what seemed like insurmountable odds. The lessons learnt are precious beyond words and the expectation is that these will be harnessed to fight other infectious diseases that plague the country. In fact, the “how” of the war on polio – for a war it was – is as fascinating as educative. There is though some controversy about whether polio really has been eradicated in India and there are warnings about a possible return. There is also the remaining challenge of treating and rehabilitating those who have already been crippled by the disease.

In the mid-1990s the vaccination programme that was undertaken involved the government, United Nations bodies, charitable organisations and private donors. While coordinating the activities of all these agencies was a humungous task, the vaccination programme itself called for dealing with fears and prejudices – social, religious and cultural – and the physical logistics of reaching every nook and corner of a vast country. The task was even more difficult in the high-risk states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh which also witness large-scale outmigration. Nearly two million vaccinators not only went to slums and villages but also provided their services at railway stations, bus terminals and construction sites as well as at fairs and other public gatherings, apart from making house to house visits. Religious and community leaders were persuaded to preach and cajole where parents were afraid of vaccination even as the media, college students, volunteers, film stars and celebrities were roped in to popularise the campaign. The expectation now is that this strategy and the mechanisms that have been put in place can be used to tackle other diseases like measles which claim thousands of under-five lives and even to push for 100% immunisation of children against the major infectious diseases. Of course, vaccination is not a cure-all solution for all infectious diseases. There are other aspects of public health like provision of sanitation and supply of potable water that need to be addressed and are as important as, if not more so than, vaccination.

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