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Overcoming Polio - What Have We Learned So Far?

While India may have been the last country to be polio-free in South-East Asia, the lessons learned have been invaluable to the global cause of Polio eradication.

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Updated:October 15, 2019, 12:18 PM IST
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Overcoming Polio - What Have We Learned So Far?
While India may have been the last country to be polio-free in South-East Asia, the lessons learned have been invaluable to the global cause of Polio eradication.

While the developing world has all but forgotten the deadly effects of Polio, unvaccinated children under 5 years in the most impoverished and marginalised communities are still at risk. As little as 12 years ago, India accounted for nearly 70% of wild polio cases worldwide owing to poverty and hard-to-reach terrain. But 2011 was also the year India recorded its last occurrence of a child being paralysed by the virus.

The Facts About Polio

● Polio (poliomyelitis) is a highly infectious viral disease. There are 3 types of wild poliovirus (WPV) - types 1, 2 and 3.

● One in 200 infections causes irreversible paralysis (mostly the lower limbs). Up to 10% of those paralysed succumb when lung muscles become immobilised.

● Wild Polio Virus (WPV) enters a child's body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine.

● It is spread through person-to-person contact or if people come into contact with infected faeces due to improper sanitation and hygiene.

● The poliovirus can cause irreversible paralysis in a matter of hours. Once contracted, the disease has no known cure.

● Prevention is the only way to protect ourselves. The virus is vaccine-preventable meaning if everyone is immunised, the virus is unable to infect and spread and hence die out.

● Polio vaccine, given multiple times, almost always gives the child life-long immunity.

● Started in 1988 The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was one of the most significant public health initiatives in history targeted at the complete destruction of the virus.

Achieving Zero-Polio Status

India has millions of births every day, some in far off places that are both remote and medically ill-equipped. In spite of the enormous logistical challenges, India undertook the most massive vaccination drive against WPV in the world.

Low coverage in remote communities, lack of proper monitoring of routine and supplementary immunisation, lack of civic infrastructure, malnutrition, profuse diarrhoea and lack of sanitation made transmission and spread of the virus very easy. Poverty-stricken areas also struggled with a lack of education and awareness. Aid workers in many parts of the country fought a parallel war to debunk myths and rumours about the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Front-line workers from the polio programme need to regularly counsel pregnant women about breastfeeding and help mothers understand the importance of routine immunisation, especially for new-borns.

A Success Story - What We Learnt!

India's journey to becoming polio-free hasn't been smooth. WPV - Type 2 was successfully eradicated in 1999. But supplementing immunisation activities, Government funding, working with international organisations and initiatives like National Immunisation Days made India's final win possible.

The strategy for eradicating the virus rested on immunising every child at risk, across the country. Innovative ideas like introducing an "underserved strategy" for people in high-risk areas and a "transit vaccine" for mobile communities proved extremely practical for the cause. But, perhaps the most crucial thing to impact WPV transmission in endemic regions has been the improvements of the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV). By successfully deploying the new and highly potent monovalent and bivalent OPVs in highly endemic states, vaccinated children received the protection they needed.

Another big reason for the countrywide success of the campaign was the government's unwavering commitment to the zero-polio cause. Annual budgetary allocations, foreign aid, supervised and reviewed performance at a local and national level and social mobilisation campaigns were the game-changers needed. Popular, respected celebrities were recruited to bridge the gender, religion and economic status gap and raise awareness.

The experience proved that joining hands with religious leaders, famous personalities and the private sector can help cut through the noise and reach the masses more effectively.

While India may have been the last country to be polio-free in South-East Asia, the lessons learned have been invaluable to the global cause of Polio eradication. Soon, we hope the only reminder of the crippling disease will lie in the annals of history and nowhere on the horizon of a prosperous future.

This is a partnered post.

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