Rukhsar Kahatoon was 18 months old when she was diagnosed with polio exactly one year ago, on January 13, 2011. Today Rukhsar is a healthy 2 1/2 year old living in Howrah, close to Kolkata, West Bengal. She’s also the last recorded case of polio in India.
That India, a country which until a few years ago reported as many as 100,000 cases of polio a year — more cases than anywhere else in the world – has been polio-free for a year, is a palpable milestone in the fight to eradicate the disease globally.
“India is a major, major victory,” Dr. Hamid Jafari, who leads the World Health Organization‘s polio eradication efforts in India, told NPR’s Shots blog. “It has established the feasibility beyond doubt of eradication. (If) it can be done under such tough conditions in India, this can be done anywhere else.”
Polio attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis. Children under age five are most vulnerable. Until the early 1950′s, when Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first polio vaccine, the disease crippled more than a thousand children every day.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been at the forefront of the battle, along with Rotary International and the World Health Organization (WHO). As Bill Gates pointed out, the India case demonstrates the disease can be halted “when countries combine the right elements – political will, quality immunization campaigns, and an entire nation’s determination.”
Worldwide polio cases have fallen by 99% since 1988 when the WHO launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. At that time, the disease was endemic in 125 countries. By contrast, there were only 620 new cases worldwide last year. Today’s India milestone also means polio is now endemic in only three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Despite the victory, global eradication is still an uphill battle. Comprehensive immunization is the only way to prevent the disease. New cases have cropped up in China, where the cases were imported from Pakistan, and Chad, where they came from Nigeria, according to the NPR report.
Experts will cull through the data from India in the coming weeks to ensure they haven’t missed any cases. “If all the data comes in clear over the next few weeks, then India, for the first time, will show up as an unshaded area on WHO polio maps,” Sona Bari of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative said. “This is a great start to the year for India.”
As NPR noted, “The lessons from India will be sifted for years to come. But it’s clear that conquering polio in that nation of 1.2 billion people is as much a story of massive persuasion as it is one of medical science.”
Photo credit: ramesh_lalwani via flickr