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India wins the battle against polio

Just 30 years ago, the annual peak for polio in India was 38,000
Just 30 years ago, the annual peak for polio in India was 38,000

This week, health workers in India are celebrating as the country declares itself free of polio.

Today, parents in India have one less worry for their children. It has now been three years since the last case of polio was reported inside the country. This means that India has joined the vast majority of nations across the world in declaring itself polio-free. The absence of polio cases in the last three years contrasts sharply with an annual peak of 38,000 cases little more than three decades ago.

This is a significant achievement for a country with a high population, where water-borne diseases spread easily in areas with poor or no sanitation facilities. Many households are also located in remote or inaccessible areas and there has been some resistance to polio vaccinations in certain pockets of the country. Despite these obstacles, the government, in partnership with agencies such as the World Health Organisation and the UN’s child agency (UNICEF), has successfully rid the country of the disease.

Tireless hard work

A spokesperson for UNICEF told the BBC that the success of the polio vaccination programmes in India over the past three decades has been achieved through the “tireless hard work of millions of front-line workers”. The introduction of a new oral vaccine in 2010 which is effective against both type 1 and type 3 polio viruses also helped to reduce repeat outbreaks.

The continuous and blanket coverage of a country with more than a billion people is being hailed as an ‘organisational’ triumph. Mapping data was used to target areas requiring new vaccination campaigns. In districts where families were resistant to allowing their children to be immunised, local religious leaders were involved to persuade parents about the importance of immunisation. And in areas with high migrant populations, vaccinations were conducted at special locations such as railway stations and at festivals and fairs.

Continued vigilance

Since the oral polio vaccine is less effective in children who suffer from regular bouts of diarrhoea, the drive to eradicate polio has also pushed community health workers across India to talk more frequently about sanitation and hygiene issues and the importance of exclusive breastfeeding up to six months.

Indian health officials recognise they will need to remain ‘vigilant’ and continue to ensure all children are protected against polio. This will involve new mass immunisation campaigns, as well as immunisation programmes being set up along border posts with neighbouring countries. India’s example should hopefully point the way for countries in Africa and the Middle East who are battling new polio outbreaks, as well as for the three nations where polio remains endemic – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

This year, SOS Children is celebrating 50 years of work in India. Today, we work in 32 locations across the country. Find out more about our work in India...