WASHINGTON — A swath of territory from India to Indonesia has been declared free of polio, a crippling and sometimes fatal disease. The World Health Organization said 80 percent of the world’s population now lives in areas it has certified as polio-free.
Polio once paralyzed a thousand children a day worldwide, but since 1988 the largest public health campaign in history has been delivering vaccines to every remote corner of the globe to beat back the disease.
At a ceremony in New Delhi Thursday, the World Health Organization’s Poonam Khetrapal Singh said all 11 countries in the Southeast Asia region had eradicated polio.
“It is a day that all countries fought hard for, and a day when all stakeholders come together to relish the victory of humankind over a dreaded disease that, for centuries, has killed and disabled legions," said Khetrapal.
India was the last and most challenging country in the region to reach this milestone, said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Steve Cochi.
“That country is a tropical country with poor sanitation, high population density, tremendous migration of the inhabitants of that country all the time, and weak immunization systems that represent enormous challenges,” said Cochi.
The challenges of underdevelopment are not limited to India. Many of the same issues can be found in Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the last three countries that have been unable to stop polio transmission.
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been parents’ concern that the vaccine will harm their children. Cochi said these fears take hold not because the vaccine is unsafe, but because of a lack of trust.
“Underserved communities, minority populations may mistrust the government, may mistrust the real reason for coming to the community with vaccines or any other health intervention. And it’s a case of rebuilding that trust,” said Cochi.
Offering community health clinics that deliver more than just polio vaccine are one way the campaign has done that.
The CDC has also helped train local people to talk to their neighbors about polio and other health issues. People trust a local, said Indian trainee Ejaz Afzal.
“People know him, this is our village, [he] is from our locality. So they are believing [him],” explained Afzal.
Afzal went to the Horn of Africa to help control an ongoing outbreak in countries that used to be polio free. Fighting has blocked vaccination campaigns in Syria. The virus has spread from that country to Iraq, and officials are concerned it will spread farther, possibly into Europe.
It’s a reminder that polio anywhere remains a threat everywhere.