As of January 2012, a whole year has passed with no new cases of polio reported in India, a country where only recently it was endemic. This milestone raises hopes that polio will finally be eradicated. India’s Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad called this achievement “a giant leap in a short span of two years.”
Until now, India was part of the so-called “PAIN group” of countries (short for Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and Nigeria) in which polio is endemic. India’s latest assault on the disease began in 1995 with the launch of a program under which nearly 172 million children received the oral poliovirus vaccine. By 1999, one of the three strains of the polio virus, P2, was eradicated in India. Over the past decade, new vaccines were introduced that were effective against the other two polio strains, P1 and P3.
More than 700 cases of polio were reported in 2009. But in 2010, only 42 cases were reported and then only one case in 2011. If India can remain polio-free–with no new cases for three consecutive years–it will be certified a polio-free country. There remains the possibility, however, of further detections through laboratory investigations, as well as the risk of the virus transmitting over the border–particularly with Pakistan–or of children contracting the virus through immunizations.
Last month, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare declared that in 2012 the country would intensify routine immunization efforts. This will involve sending out large groups of health workers to immunize the 40 percent of children throughout India who are still unprotected by the vaccine. It is difficult for many to envision deploying millions of health workers to destroy one disease, especially given human resource shortages in India’s health system.
Inspired by India’s feat, the Director of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, recently called for global adaptation of India’s immunization program in an attempt to eradicate polio worldwide. Hamid Jafari, who manages the National Polio Surveillance Project for the World Health Organization believes this is closest the world has come to global eradication of polio. India’s Health and Family Welfare Minister Azad is also optimistic. “We are excited and hopeful, at the same time, vigilant and alert,” he said.