Eradication of Polio in India and the Lessons Learnt
Did you know that the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially declared India polio-free in 2014? This declaration is a testament to India’s ability to completely eradicate a disease through mass immunisation.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a standstill. All health and government authorities were primarily focused on bringing this pandemic to an end. What we didn’t realise was that other diseases are still rampant. COVID had just taken the limelight away.
People still died of cancer, HIV, diabetes, and other chronic ailments. It’s just that COVID had our undivided attention; we are yet to put into numbers the impact other diseases have had. One of the diseases that’s on the brink of eradication globally and has already been eradicated in India is polio.
Polio in Numbers
Although polio cases had dropped by 99% around the world since 1988, it still exists. The last case of polio in India was recorded in Howrah, West Bengal, over a decade ago, on 13 January 2011, thus officially making India polio-free as of 2014. Since then, it is fair to say that polio has taken a back seat as a health concern in India. Therefore, like other ailments, we’ve not paid much attention to polio during the pandemic.
However, 6 cases of polio were reported in 2021 globally. Yes, the number is low. But the re-emergence of polio is definitely a concern. Fortunately, since the number is extremely low, we can eradicate it once and for all now.
We hope that India steers clear of this disease in the aftermath of COVID. But, as the saying goes, hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Let’s look back on polio, how we eradicated it from India and the lessons learnt.
What Is Polio?
Polio or Poliomyelitis is a disabling disease. The poliovirus causes it, and it’s a communicable disease that spreads through person-to-person contact. The poliovirus lives in the infected person’s throat and intestine. Polio can potentially impact the infected person’s brain and spinal cord, which results in paralysis.
Polio primarily infects children under 5 years of age. 1 out of every 5 of those infected has irreversible paralysis. 5-10% of the people paralyzed by polio die due to immobilised breathing muscles.
Here are the common symptoms of polio:
These symptoms usually last up to 5 days and then go away on their own for 25% of those who contract polio. However, a smaller number of people will develop a severe problem like Meningitis or Paralysis.
While there is no cure for polio, we have a vaccine, which is the best way to protect ourselves against this disease. If one contracts polio, doctors focus on increasing comfort, speeding the rate of recovery from polio symptoms and preventing complications. Supportive treatments include:
Portable ventilators to assist breathing
Physical therapy to prevent deformity and loss of muscle function
To completely prevent contracting this disease, you can take either of the two vaccines:
Inactivated poliovirus vaccine (IPV): Get this as a shot in either your leg or your arm.
Oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV): The older form of the vaccine
If you complete all your polio vaccinations in your childhood (which is ensured for every child in India), you’re immune for life. You can get two shots that are 4 to 8 weeks apart. Then, you take a third shot 6 months to a year later. If you did not get vaccinated or are unsure about your vaccination status, your doctor can still give them to you.
How Did We Eradicate Polio in India?
Once India realised the necessity to eradicate the disease, we prepared for an aggressive battle against polio in 1990. This was to support WHO’s 1988 Global Polio Eradication Initiative.
India moved ahead with the Pulse Polio Immunisation Programme on 2 October, 1994. At the time, India accounted for 60% of the global polio cases. Once the immunisation campaign and programme started, it took us less than 2 decades to beat the disease and get the “Polio-free certification”.
This feat did not take something out of the ordinary. All we had to do was dedicate and commit ourselves to the cause and double down on the immunisation activities. We brought in celebrities to campaign for the programme. India used slogans like “do boond zindagi ki” to run the Pulse Polio campaign.
We now understand disease eradication in this country (and yes, we hope this paves the way to eradicate COVID, once and for all). Now, we just need to replicate the process for all the communicable diseases with the available immunisation protocols.
It is important to note that the COVID-19 vaccine is significantly different from the polio vaccine or any other vaccine. This is because COVID-19 is a respiratory virus while polio is an enterovirus. Additionally, the vaccine for COVID-19 has to be injected while the one for polio can be administered orally.
However, what we need to take into account is our accessibility to healthcare infrastructure. We need a good healthcare infrastructure that will help us fight all epidemics and pandemics, including polio and COVID-19. The principles of immunisation have been laid out as a result of the polio campaign. All we need to do is apply the same principles and zeal to eradicate other diseases.
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