The contemporary generation would not know of India’s long struggle and victory over polio. It was on January 13, 2011, when two-year-old Rukhsar of Howrah became the last polio victim. All nations of South Asia had become polio-free 10 years before India.
Sir Clem Renouf, the incoming Rotary International president in 1977, came across an article in the Reader’s Digest about the eradication of smallpox and wondered if another disease could be eradicated worldwide. He identified polio as the biggest threat to children. In 1979, Rotary initiated polio immunisation for six million Filipino children by OPV (oral polio vaccine), developed by Dr Albert Sabin. Big action started in 1985, when the WHO CDC (Center for Disease Control of the US) joined in and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation became a significant partner.
Although the World Health Assembly adopted eradication of polio in 1988, nothing had happened in India till 1993–94. Thereafter, action was accelerated by Dr Harsh Vardhan, the then health minister of Delhi, as he demonstrated that all children aged five or younger would be immunised in one day. This was effective and known as NID (National Immunisation Day), which was carried out across India. The credit for this went to union health ministers Sushma Swaraj, Anbumani Ramadoss and Ghulam Nabi Azad. Still, there was huge resistance from the minority communities. They were brought around by the Rotary’s outreach programmes, including free polio corrective surgeries for their children, and financially supported by the government for vaccines initially. Rotary has been funding the WHO and UNICEF polio work in India.
On March 26, 2014, the WHO certified India as polio-free and declared South Asia free from the disease. Nigeria became free of polio in August 2020. In 2021, wild poliovirus transmission was reported at the lowest level ever in history, with one case in Pakistan and four in Afghanistan.
Although India has been free of wild poliovirus since 2011, it is concerned about neighbouring countries Pakistan and Afghanistan. Pakistan is organised in disease detection. For Afghanistan, the good news is that the new government is in favour of polio vaccination, and on October 21, 2021, the Taliban government notified to restart the door-to-door vaccine programme.
It is hoped that the world will be certified polio-free by 2026. Till then, funds need to be raised, programme fatigue has to be avoided, and in this, Rotary continues its advocacy role, raising $1 million every year and monitoring the progress. The world will reap substantial financial and humanitarian dividends from the final victory, with no more vaccine and rehabilitation costs. It will be a golden moment when Rotary’s 1978 dream of a polio-free world will come true. APJ Abdul Kalam said, ‘If four things are followed — having a great aim, acquiring knowledge, hard work and perseverance — then everything can be achieved.’
The writer is a past RI president
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