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India on track to become polio-free, says UN health agency

Children with polio at the Amar Jyoti Research Centre, Delhi, India.
WHO/P. Virot
Children with polio at the Amar Jyoti Research Centre, Delhi, India.

India on track to become polio-free, says UN health agency

With no registered polio cases over the past year, India is on course to becoming free of the disease, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) reported today.

If all pending samples for the virus test negative, India – once regarded as the world’s epicentre for polio – will become free of the disease for the first time in its history, reducing the number of polio-endemic countries to three: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

“India’s success is arguably its greatest public health achievement and has provided a global opportunity to push for the end of polio,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan stated in a news release.

“Stopping polio in India required creativity, perseverance and professionalism – many of the innovations in polio eradication were sparked by the challenges in India. The lessons from India must now be adapted and implemented through emergency actions to finish polio everywhere,” she said.

UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Anthony Lake attributed India’s remarkable progress to strong leadership at a national and state level, which pushed for the launch of a comprehensive polio eradication programme that enabled very poor and populous states to have high immunization coverage.

“India’s achievement is proof positive that we can eradicate polio even in the most challenging environments – in fact, it is only by targeting these areas that we can defeat this evil disease,” Mr Lake said.

“We have the ability to protect every last person, especially children, from this entirely preventable disease – and because we can, we must finish the job of eradicating polio globally, once and for all.”

The scale of the eradication effort has been described by WHO as “mind-boggling,” with 170 million children under the age of five being vaccinated each year in two national immunization campaigns, and up to 70 million children in the highest-risk areas being vaccinated multiple times in additional special campaigns.

Implementing the campaigns also required a big financial commitment from the Government. According to WHO, India will have by next year have spent $2 billion in eradication efforts, making it one of the largest donors to polio eradication.

In spite of the current progress, WHO warned that there is no room for complacency. “It is a very welcome milestone, but it is not the end of the road,” WHO’s spokesperson for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Sona Bari, told UN Radio.

She added that the Government of India must remain vigilant and respond very rapidly to guard itself against any importation of polio from other countries.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) is spearheaded by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF.