A decade ago, few public health experts would have predicted that India would now be free of poliomyelitis, the crippling viral disease that has disabled millions and even killed many of our children over the years.
In March of this year, India – along with the rest of the World Health Organization’s (W.H.O.) South-East Asia Region – was declared polio-free, an incredible milestone for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. India, which had not recorded a new case of polio since January 2011, was the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place, leading to the certification of the entire region.
Once considered the country facing the most serious challenges to the eradication effort, India is justifiably proud of its accomplishment. Among the hurdles it faced were poverty, illiteracy, water pollution, poor sanitation, and a culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse population of more than 1.2 billion people, spread over 1.2 million square miles, from remote rural villages to teeming urban slums.
Eradicating polio in India required years of perseverance and commitment and sustained collaboration among a wide spectrum of stakeholders. Government leadership at every level received unwavering support from international agencies, such as W.H.O. and Unicef; non-governmental organizations and philanthropists, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; businesses and corporations; physicians and nurses; and millions of dedicated health workers and volunteers.
Rotary, an international humanitarian service organization that led the launch of the global polio campaign in 1988, has more than 130,000 members in India. It helps promote and carry out the massive National Immunization Days that continue to reach 172 million children at a time with the oral polio vaccine.
The Rotary Muslim Ulema Committee proved instrumental in convincing Muslim leaders of the benefits of vaccination, greatly reducing resistance among India’s Muslim population, which had been a large obstacle to the eradication of the disease.
But while we have beaten polio in India for now, we cannot become complacent, because a polio-free India is not a polio-free world. As Ebola has recently reminded us, infectious diseases in today’s shrinking and ever more mobile world are only a flight – or a bus ride – away from anywhere else. We must continue to immunize our children and maintain strong monitoring and surveillance efforts for signs of the polio virus.
We must also assign priority to other diseases that threaten our children. India is a leading producer and exporter of vaccines, yet it is home to one-third of the world’s unimmunized children. There are 27 million babies born in India each year – more than in any other country.
The polio eradication partners are now using their infrastructure, manpower, resources, and knowledge to support the Indian government’s Universal Immunization Programme (U.I.P.), which vaccinates for seven diseases, including tuberculosis, diphtheria, and Hepatitis B.
Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government announced that the injectable polio vaccine, as well as vaccines against rotavirus, rubella, and Japanese encephalitis, will soon be added to the U.I.P.
Thanks to the lessons learned and best practices developed during the polio campaign, we are well prepared and equipped to deliver these new life-saving vaccines to the children and adults most at risk.
Once polio is gone for good, we can shift the full weight of the polio campaign’s vigor and experience to address these other serious health threats. We will never run out of challenges, but our victory over polio in India teaches us that with sufficient planning, commitment, and resources, nothing is impossible.