Accessibility links

One Year On, India Fights to Remain Polio-Free

  • Aru Pande

A year ago, the World Health Organization confirmed that polio was no longer endemic in India. The South Asian country went from accounting for half the world’s cases in 2009 to only one new case in early 2011.

To get a sense of how India was able to fight the highly contagious and crippling polio virus, one does not have to look any further than this home - in a Muslim-majority area of Ghaziabad, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

Asma Khatun is a mother of two.

"Whenever anyone comes, we get the children vaccinated. Even if nobody came to our house, we would send our children [to a clinic] to get vaccinated," she said.

As a government and UNICEF team go house to house to inoculate children against polio -- they are not met with any opposition.

Nasreen Jahan, who says she has the paralyzing disease, looks on as her baby receives polio drops.

“I have a hard time walking, and I don’t want my kids to have the same disease," she said.

UNICEF says that, just 25 years ago, polio crippled an estimated 200,000 children in India each year. And many experts predicted that India would be the last country to eradicate polio.

Millions of dollars and vaccine doses later - India went from reporting 741 cases in 2009 to just one in 2011.

UNICEF says teams of health workers like this one, targeting high-risk areas, have been key in the fight.

Women like Zareena Parveen spend hours among families in their own neighborhoods, convincing parents of the importance of vaccinating their children while also dispelling misinformation about the vaccine.

“They used to think that our children will become sterile and will not be able to have children when they grow up," she said. "They used to think like this before… but now they don’t, now they allow their kids to get the drops.”

Local Muslim institutions and community leaders have also been instrumental in spreading the word at festivals, mosques and schools.

Maulana Noor Hasan Qasmi says there's a difference between his community in India and those in the remaining polio-endemic countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria - where gunmen have killed vaccinators.

“The polio vaccination campaign has been successful here because our Muslim scholars are with us. With their support, we are able to make people understand that giving children the vaccine is beneficial and crucial," he said.

The Indian Health Ministry last month launched a nationwide immunization campaign - with a goal of vaccinating 170 million children under the age of five. The effort will focus on the most vulnerable populations - including newborns, migrants and those living in high-risk areas.

If no new cases of polio are reported in India by 2014, the country will officially be declared polio-free. But UNICEF warns there is no room for complacency and that India must remain vigilant in protecting children until polio is eradicated world-wide.