India’s Health Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has hailed the country’s biggest public health success a “monumental milestone”.
“This monumental milestone was possible due to unwavering political will at the highest level, commitment of adequate financial resources, technological innovation … and the tireless efforts of millions of workers including more than 23 lakh (2.3 million) vaccinators,” Azad told reporters.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) removed the country from the list of polio-endemic nations in 2012. Neighbouring Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria have remained on the list.
It is expected that the WHO will formally certify India’s polio-free health status next month, after a series of samples are tested.
“India has now set other important public health goals as a result of the confidence that the country has got from the successful eradication of polio,” the WHO’s Hamid Jafari told reporters, at the same time citing a new goal to eradicate measles.
Following the eradication of smallpox in the 1980’s, polio is the second disease to be eradicated in India through a strong immunisation program.
It takes almost 2.3 million volunteers to vaccinate the nation’s 170 million children under five years of age during every round of immunisation.
Poliomyelitis is a disease that can leave victims severely disabled or cause death within hours of contraction. Plaguing societies in ancient times, polio was still present in more than 100 countries in the 1980’s, leaving up to 350,000 people paralysed every year. It remains incurable but immunisation has led to its almost complete eradication.
While global cases of polio have decreased thanks to a mass eradication programme, down to 372 cases worldwide in 2013, health experts fear a resurgence of the disease could come about in other part of the world.
Most of the polio cases from last year were in countries caught up in ongoing conflict and violence like Somalia and Syria – areas where polio had previously been eradicated.
Immunisation efforts have also been hindered in India’s neighbouring Pakistan, because of attacks by militant groups in the areas who perceive the programs as Western propaganda. The fear is that unless the immunisation is re-started soon, polio could infect more children in Pakistan with a heightened risk of spreading beyond the country’s borders into India.