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India sets the example for efforts to eradicate polio

So far this year, only one case of polio has been reported in India, leading the country’s health minister to declare on World Polio Day that India has “never been closer” to eradicating the disease.

The one infection was registered in the state of West Bengal in January and since then, no new cases have reported. This nine months is the longest polio-free period in India since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) in 1988.

In 1988, over 350,000 people contracted this cruel disease worldwide, many of them children under the age of five. But with the global push to vaccinate babies against the disease with mouth droplets, there were just over 1,000 infections in 2010. In Asia, the disease remains endemic in just three countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. However, India has made huge efforts to tackle polio with the help of international organisations. Each year, the country holds an immunisation drive against the disease, when oral drops are administered to 170 million children. With only one case of polio being reported so far this year, the signs are that this programme is working to good effect. However, the Indian government is not allowing for any complacency. The BBC reported India’s health minister as saying “we are close to our goal but not taking any chances” and he promised efforts would continue to make sure no residual polio virus remained.

But while the news has been encouraging in India, international experts warn that globally the world is “off track” for eradicating polio by the end of 2012. This year polio has resurfaced in a number of countries, which have recorded twice as many cases (162) than in the four endemic countries. Nigeria is the last African country where polio remains endemic, but worrying new outbreaks have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

Experts are also concerned about the situation in Pakistan, which is the only polio-endemic country to see an increase in cases. In 2009, 89 children were paralyzed with polio. This number increased to 144 in 2010 and by June this year, already over 50 infections had been registered. With cases being reported in new areas of the country, there are fears polio could be spreading in Pakistan. The government and the World Health Organisation have been taking extra vaccination measures to try and prevent wider outbreaks in the regions affected.

Sir Liam Donaldson, who leads the board which monitors the progress of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, admitted that despite the global success in reducing polio infections, there is still a “very big rump of cases”. And he warned that “tackling the remaining 1 per cent of polio is the greatest challenge yet”. However, the programme in India has showed that when vaccination campaigns are well-run and meticulous in ensuring every child is protected, then this most highly infectious of diseases can indeed be beaten.

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