As India marks an important milestone in its fight against polio, international health experts say that it is too soon to declare victory. Mass vaccination has eradicated the crippling disease in many parts of the world. But polio transmission and sudden outbreaks remain a challenge in large regions of the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in west and central Africa.
To help India celebrate one year since its last reported case of polio, U.S. Health Secretary, Dr. Kathleen Sebelius, came to administer oral polio vaccine to Indian children. Health officials see the polio-free anniversary as a turning point in the global polio eradication program.
The number of polio cases reported in India dropped from 741 in 2009 to only 42 in 2010, and just one case was reported in 2011.
"What we are seeing today after 12 months without a child paralyzed by polio is that proof-positive that polio can be eradicated," said The World Health Organization’s Assistant Director-General, Dr. Bruce Aylward, who leads the group's global polio eradication program. "We can overcome the biological challenges, we can overcome the operational challenges to ensuring this disease is eradicated once and for all."
Out of list
In the coming weeks, India will be removed from the WHO's list of countries where polio is endemic, unless a new or previously unreported case emerges. Dr. Aylward says polio endemic countries can take lessons from the strategies that worked in India.
''Northern Nigeria and Pakistan are now the key to completing global eradication," said Dr. Aylward. "The challenge now, the priority now is applying the same lessons, the same ingenuity, the same innovation, the same accountability framework, the same kind of perseverance that we saw in India to get the job finished in those two countries.''
Dr. Neeraj Mistry, the managing director at the Sabin Vaccine Institute says India’s success against its unique public health challenge is critically important to the global eradication effort.
“In India they worked with imams to actually put out the messages - that [produced] greater local acceptance and cultural acceptance of these health interventions," said Dr. Mistry."Similarly, in other parts of the world, we can find community leaders that maybe in the form of traditional healers or even faith-based leaders in communities, that will be able to put out the messages that give greater cultural acceptance to such interventions.”
Polio, which can be prevented only by immunization, is caused by the wild polio virus, which attacks the central nervous system and can cause paralysis, muscular atrophy, and permanent deformity. It can also cause death. It infects mostly children living in unsanitary conditions. Experts say as long as even one child is infected there is a danger of others contracting the debilitating infection.