It is now three years since India reported a case of Polio and the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that the country is officially free from the clutches of such a debilitating disease. In 2012 WHO no longer listed the South Asian country as a polio-endemic country; however, after three years without an incidence of the disease the country will now receive formal certification confirming it is now a polio-free state. It is viewed as one of India’s greatest achievements and as they celebrate their polio free certification status from WHO, many have asked how such a turnaround in the country’s situation with regard to the illness occurred. The fact is, it was only made possible through a long-term, country-wide immunization scheme. The political commitment and determination displayed by the government to the project has been widely lauded, as have the efforts of those on the ground who carried out the immunization program.
The importance of immunization in eradicating the disease from India is shown clearly through the figures as nearly two and a half million volunteers helped vaccinate 170 million children in the country for every round of vaccinations. Other impressive statistics also include the fact that in 1985 the country recorded 200,000 cases of Polio, and in 2011 the figure was zero. However, the success of the scheme also required significant financial backing, technological innovation and medical workers as well.
The national effort to rid the country of such an endemic disease was particularly difficult to maintain in areas of dense population and high birth rates, namely Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The conditions in many of these places made them ideal for polio to spread, with dirty water, pollution, sanitation issues and terrible poverty all common in India’s most troubled states. Polio is now only endemic in three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria where immunization progress is often hindered by militant intervention and the poor living conditions continue to allow the spread of such a terrible disease. It is hoped that India will not be the only one with cause to celebrate a WHO polio free certification in the near future as there is a marked effort to achieve the same incredible results in these countries.
Polio, or Poliomyelitis to give it the official medical name, is a disease that has been traced back to the beginning of human existence, with Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting figures on crutches with withered and twisted legs characteristic symptoms of the disease. Polio can paralyze the spine or lungs and as a result can be fatal in certain cases. The implications of spinal paralysis are often manifested in asymmetrical paralysis or inflammation of the legs which causes acute pain in many sufferers. It is a highly infectious virus that is spread through fecal matter, which makes it particularly likely to occur in places where dysentery and diarrhea are common. Typically it is passed on through contaminated water or food. There is still no cure for the disease although vaccines have been incredibly effectual in stopping the disease.
However, although polio has been removed from most of the world, vigilance is still needed to ensure the situation remains that way. There have been instances when a country has been re-infected with the disease, notably in 2011 when China was reportedly infected from Pakistan after having been free of it for over ten years. Particularly in light of recent problems with rates of other infectious diseases rising, often due to lack of vaccinations or continued medication, if Polio is to be fully eradicated there needs to be continual efforts to protect against the disease.
There is a global aim to eliminate Polio as a condition by 2018. With only three countries left on the endemic list, and a hand full of countries exhibiting low numbers of cases, this certainly seems an achievable goal and India has set an incredible example and fully deserve to celebrate their polio free status certification from WHO.
By Rhona Scullion