Rotary club members worldwide are cautiously celebrating a major milestone in the global effort to eradicate polio. India, until recently an epicenter of the wild poliovirus, has gone one year without recording a new case of the crippling, sometimes fatal, disease.
India’s last reported case was a two-year-old girl in West Bengal State on 13 January 2011. The country recorded 42 cases in 2010, and 741 in 2009.
A chief factor in India’s success has been the widespread use of the bivalent oral polio vaccine, which is effective against both remaining types of the poliovirus. Another has been rigorous monitoring, which has helped reduce the number of children missed by health workers during National Immunization Days to less than 1 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Rotary has been a spearheading partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative since 1988, along with WHO, UNICEF, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also a key supporter of the initiative.
Sporting their signature yellow vests and caps, the nearly 119,000 Rotarians in India have helped administer vaccine to children, organize free health camps and polio awareness rallies, and distribute banners, caps, comic books, and other items.
“With the support of their Rotary brothers and sisters around the world, Indian Rotarians have worked diligently month after month, year after year, to help organize and carry out the National Immunization Days that reach millions of children with the oral polio vaccine,” says RI President Kalyan Banerjee, of the Rotary Club of Vapi, Gujarat.
“The achievement of a polio-free India for a full year is a significant step towards a polio-free world -- an example as to what can be accomplished no matter what problems need to be overcome,” says Robert S. Scott, chair of Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee. “Rotarians of India are and should be proud of the key efforts they have made at all levels, without which the world would not be marking this milestone.”
Deepak Kapur, chair of the India PolioPlus Committee, also credits the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for its commitment to ending polio. To date, the Indian government has spent more than US$1.2 billion on domestic polio eradication activities. “Government support is crucial if we are to defeat polio, and we are fortunate that our government is our biggest advocate in this effort,” Kapur says.
“Marching ahead, the goal is to sustain this momentum,” he adds, describing as potentially “decisive” the upcoming immunization rounds this month and in February and March.
If all ongoing testing for polio cases recorded through 13 January continues to yield negative results, WHO will declare that India has interrupted transmission of indigenous wild poliovirus, laying the groundwork for its removal from the polio-endemic countries list, which also includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. However, because non-endemic countries remain at risk for cases imported from endemic countries, immunizations in India and other endemic and at-risk countries must continue. Neighboring Pakistan, which has reported 189 cases so far for 2011, is a major threat to India’s continued polio-free status. Last year, an outbreak in China, which had been polio-free for a decade, was traced genetically to Pakistan.
“As an Indian, I am immensely proud of what Rotary has accomplished,” Banerjee says. “However, we know this is not the end of our work. Rotary and our partners must continue to immunize children in India and in other countries until the goal of a polio-free world is finally achieved.”