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India Reaches Polio Milestone

A boy stands next to a polio awareness poster at Meerut in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh January 28, 2009. (file photo)

A boy stands next to a polio awareness poster at Meerut in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh January 28, 2009. (file photo)

India scored a victory against polio in recent days when the World Health Organization declared that the country no longer belongs to the list of polio-endemic countries. But heath workers say they are not slowing down their efforts in the battle against the disease.

There is quiet elation among health officials in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, that not a single case of polio has been recorded since January, last year.

Despite the progress, Rakesh Vishwakarma, officer on special duty for Uttar Pradesh at WHO, said health workers still fan out every month to administer polio drops to millions of children, including those of migrant families.

“There are big migrations from different part of the country," Vishwakarma said. "They come here on construction [sites]…..and to track those child and immunize those [children]. Its a big challenge.”

After India did not report any new case for a year, the World Health Organization took it off a list of countries where polio is endemic.

But India needs to keep up its guard for another two years, because countries are only declared polio free after three straight years without an outbreak. And, it is in India’s poorest regions such as Uttar Pradesh (UP) that health officials are on their toes to prevent any new resurgence of the disease that cripples children.

The virus had rebounded, earlier. After dropping to 134 polio cases in 2004, as many as 741 new cases were reported in 2009, raising fears that the polio virus was proving to be a difficult opponent.

Lieven Desomar, chief of the polio unit at the United Nations Children's Fund, said catching “children on the move” will be critical to achieving final success.

“The issues in 2009 are still the issues we are facing today. 19 million people a day take the train in India," Desomar said. "A lot of cases which we found outside the traditional states of UP and Bihar originated from UP and Bihar through migrant populations and mobile populations. Catching and immunizing all those children, at the borders, in buses crossing state line and so forth, that has been a major challenge.”

A victory against polio in India will be of huge significance for the global fight against the disease, said the World Health Organization’s Polio Project Manager in India, Hamid Jafari.

“Until recently, India was one of the major exporters of polio virus around the world, so several countries got re-infected with the virus that originated from India. And, once India stops transmission, then an important source of polio virus that was spreading internationally will be shut off,” said Jarafi.

Officials like Desomar at UNICEF say the success in India will reenergize the global initiative to defeat the polio virus. But he cautioned against a sense of complacency setting in during the next two years.

“Its too premature to take out the champagne. We have to keep the bottle cold. But we have two more years before we can cork it.”

Polio has been eradicated from most countries. Three polio-endemic countries remain: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.