Going but not Gone



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On January 13, 2012, India achieved a major milestone. No, it was not another satellite or nuclear submarine launch. It was the first time the country interrupted polio virus for one complete year.

It was on the same day last year that the last polio case in the country was detected in Howrah, West Bengal.

Barely six years back we had the dubious distinction of having 66 per cent of polio cases globally.

The achievement was not a cakewalk. Behind it lay the sheer perseverance and hard work of thousands of strategists, government officials, health workers, private practitioners, NGOs and the media.

While governments have been at the receiving end of criticism for all welfare programmes, the polio eradication programme was one where even the international agencies lauded the role played by and the commitment of both the national and state Governments. From the Anganwadi worker to the district administrations and the top most bureaucrats in the Health departments of both the Central and state governments, polio eradication has been and continues to remain a priority area.

It was not less than on a war scale that the battle against the paralyzing disease was fought. Posters, banners, balloons, handbills, public announcements, awareness campaigns in schools and educational institutions and celebrities including the Big B appealing to the masses to give them ‘Do Boond Zindagi Ki’ persuaded even the illiterate and reluctant parents to get their kids vaccinated.

There were hurdles. Superstitions, myths and conspiracy theories were circulated and fanned with support even from sections of media. Counter strategies were drawn up by reaching out to clerics and even local Registered Medical Practitioners (RMPs or quacks) turning them into influencers. Then there was the issue of dealing with migrant and nomadic populations, fears of importation from neighbouring countries such as Pakistan, which were endemic and, occasionally, opposition from people on developmental issues.

In fact, institutions such as Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) have become role models with regard to community outreach programmes. In 2009, of the 17 cases reported from Aligarh, 16 belonged to the minority community. AMU faculty and students joined hands to tackle this menace head on. The University’s Jawahar Lal Nehru Medical College reoriented medical education with high emphasis on community medicine while the social work department made polio eradication programme part and parcel of its field work activities.

Other departments organized street plays and poster, painting and debate competitions in local Government schools to create awareness. The Head Qazi and the Imam of the Idgah were roped in as influencers.

In Bulandshahr, another high risk area, the district administration innovatively utilized family occasions such as ‘Godh Bharai’ (Baby Shower) and the child’s first birthday to spread awareness about the disease and its consequences.

World bodies such as UNICEF and WHO also chipped in involving film stars and cricketers to inspire the masses.

And the outcome was overwhelming. The unthinkable was achieved. But is it time to be complacent and rest on our laurels? It’s early days yet. India still has to report zero polio cases for the next two years to be declared as a polio free country.

We cannot let down the momentum against polio. All the negative factors favouring the polio virus including lack of hygiene and malnutrition are still widely prevalent across the country. There should not be any let up either in the awareness drive or in administering polio to our children. The polio eradication programme would have to reinvent itself by including Routine Immunization and sanitation in its campaign. For instance, Aligarh may not have reported a single polio case but the number of totally immunized children is only 25 per cent. The local media too should not sensationalise suspect cases and learn to distinguish between polio and cases of Acute Flaccid Paralysis (AFP).

Polio is on its way out. We have miles to go before we sleep.