Recently, the World Health Organisation anounced that India
has officially broken the chain of Polio transmission
, with no new cases reported in the last
year. Following independent checks of the reporting laboratories, Indian Health Minister announced
that WHO "has taken India's name off the list of polio endemic countries"
.[Autoplaying video of Health Minister's announcement]
Poliomyelitis is an untreatable, highly contagious viral disease causing rapid-onset paralysis which can be permanent or even fatal in many cases. Extensive vaccination campaigns have eradicated it from the developed world, although extremely low vaccination rates in Western countries combined with easier global travel from infected countries make its global eradication a priority for all of us. The WHO Polio Factsheet
and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Previously on Metafilter:Gates Foundation and Polio)
are all excellent sources of information.
India will need to maintain its clean transmission record and high standards of surveillance for a further two years before officially being declared free of Polio. If successful, this will reduce the list of countries with endemic infections to just Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan; it will also make this sequence of maps showing Polio's retreat across the globe
a little more beautiful.
The push to eradicate Polio in India is particularly impressive, given that in 2009 it had the higest rate of new infections in the world. However, it has not been without its setbacks, largely due to fears spread by religious leaders that the vaccination would cause infertility (e.g. in 2003
and 2006 [NB: Both NYTimes links]
have suffered very similar problems, with religious and community leaders claiming that vaccines are a Western plot to sterilise populations or infect them with HIV, leading to mass resistance to and year-long suspension of vaccination programmes. The recent revelation that the CIA's hunt for Bin Laden involved faking a vaccination campaign in Pakistan
has probably not helped the situation.
However, it must be noted that these conspiracy theories are against a background of real risk. In 2007, Nigeria, already very skeptical of the WHO's motives, experienced the "nightmare scenario"
of an outbreak caused by the vaccine itself, in which the crippled, live virus evolved back to a virulent form
, beginning a new wave of infections amongst unvaccinated people and leading to new cases of paralysis.
Let's hope that India's most recent case of Polio, in Rukhsar Khatoon
, a little girl living in West Bengal whose disease was identified on 13th February 2011, was also their last.