The World Health Organization has intensified efforts to eliminate the crippling disease polio in India following a dramatic increase in cases during the past year. Health officials fear India's new polio cases could set back a global campaign to eradicate the disease.
The head of World Health Organization, Gro Harlem Brundtland, said it is vital to vaccinate tens of millions of children against polio in India. More than 1,500 cases of polio were reported in the country last year, up from just 268 the year before.
The new cases pose a fresh challenge to an ambitious worldwide campaign launched in 1988 to wipe out polio, which used to paralyze tens of thousands of children every year.
Polio usually strikes children less than five years old, causing paralysis or even death. But it is easily prevented with a few drops of an oral vaccine. Mass immunization drives across the world have stamped out the disease in most countries. But cases still occur in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan and some African nations. These are being called the "last frontiers" for polio eradication.
The WHO chief, Dr. Brundtland, has called for health workers in India to wage the "end game" against the disease, particularly in eastern Uttar Pradesh state, where most of the world's new cases are concentrated. Dr. Brundtland visited the state a few days ago.
"Uttar Pradesh is the epicenter of the eradication campaign because two-thirds of the cases of polio in the global context are in Uttar Pradesh. So it is really the center of attention. Although there are seven countries in the world that have some transmission, Uttar Pradesh is absolutely the key area. We need to get to every child, and repeat vaccinations so that we can come to our target of eradicating polio," she said.
Health officials say polio cases probably increased in Uttar Pradesh because immunization past campaigns did not reach children in some districts. Most new polio cases have been reported in poor and backward regions, where lack of education and awareness may hurt the effectiveness of vaccination programs.
To combat the huge rise in polio, India and WHO have launched the world's biggest immunization program, with a special focus on Uttar Pradesh. The campaign involves tens of thousands of health workers and volunteers. Popular film stars, the country's cricket heroes, and schools also are spreading the message on the importance of immunizing children against polio.
The most recent immunization round was conducted a few days ago, when health workers tried to reach nearly 100 million children across 10 Indian states. The immunization drives will be repeated several times this year in an effort to reach every child under five years old.
Savita Varde Naqvi, spokeswoman for the U.N. childrens' agency UNICEF, calls it a massive operation involving many agencies and workers. "UNICEF has about 3,000 social mobilizers in high-risk pockets in UP [Uttar Pradesh] trying to reach out to the communities and families, which either are reticent to come to the booth or do not wish to give their children the polio drops, or who may not have the information of when it is happening or why it should be done," she said.
WHO had hoped to eradicate polio by the year 2005, but officials now say the new cases in India could push back that target by a few years.