India yesterday marked three years since its last polio case was reported, a major milestone in global efforts to eradicate the disease.
The marker puts the country on course to being formally declared polio-free in March. The World Health Organisation stills need to confirm there are no as yet undetected cases before making the official declaration.
“In 2009 India accounted for over half of the global polio burden and today is the historic day when we have completed three years without a single case of wild polio,” said India’s health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad.
“This monumental milestone was possible due to unwavering political will at the highest level, commitment of adequate financial resources, technological innovation ... and the tireless efforts of millions of workers including more than 23 lakh [2.3 million] vaccinators,” he said.
Smiling and flashing a V for victory sign, he added: “I think this is great news not just for India but the entire globe.”
With the number of cases in decline in Nigeria and Afghanistan, two of only three countries where polio is still endemic, along with Pakistan, world efforts to consign the crippling virus to history are making steady progress.
“If the current trends of progress continue we could very easily see the end of polio in Afghanistan and Nigeria in 2014,” said Hamid Jafari, global polio expert at the World Health Organisation
However Indian health officials remain concerned about the possibility of the virus entering the country from neighbouring Pakistan, where a spate of cases has been reported.
Indian health authorities have set up polio immunisation booths at the two border crossings with Pakistan and all children who enter by road and train are being given vaccines.
Polio usually infects children under age five when they drink contaminated water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.
India’s task of eradicating the disease was made more difficult because of its widespread poverty, dense population, poor sanitation, high levels of migration and weak public health system.