India Continues Fight Against Polio
Thirty kilometers from the nearest paved road, untouched by running water or electricity, Tilkeshwar is one of India’s most remote villages.
Here, in the remnants of the dark ages, life is bleak, with hardly any sort of health care, the men having to work the most primitive of jobs in order to sustain their families.
It is here in this remote part of India, in the flood plain of the Kosi River, that the polio virus has eluded the eradication campaign against it. The long stagnant fight against the disease could now be on the verge of a great victory.
The reason for scientists’ optimism in this respect, is the overwhelming campaign organized by the government. In only five days, 2.5 million workers visited 68 million homes and inoculated 172 million children.
Although similar campaigns fell short of success in the past, this time around, health workers have new means of guaranteeing complete vaccination. They now have a new, more effective vaccine and comprehensive monitoring methods which ensure that no child is missed, even in the most remote parts of India.
For India, which oscillates between new health and poverty, eradicating this ancient disease, long forgotten in the developed world, could set it on the course of becoming a world superpower.
Dr. Lakhindra Prasad, chief medical officer of India’s Darbhanga district, which covers Tilkeshwar, called the virus a “stigma” for India’s people, because they hadn’t managed to get rid of it yet.
This sort of success in India, would create a precedent, for the rest of the world, in bringing health care to the poorest parts of the globe.
Bruce Aylward, the head of the World Health Organization’s global polio campaign, called it a surprise, that what we thought impossible, has become standardized treatment.
India, one of four nations still infected with polio, last year, reported only 42 cases, a 94 percent drop from the year before.
In the area around the Kosi River floodplain, no cases of polio have been reported since January last year. In other places, reports stopped coming in around April.
Dilip Kumar Mukhiya, a member of the Tilkeshwar village council, said he really feels the polio problem is over, he says he can feel it is coming to an end.
The near success in India and a similar situation in Nigeria, created enthusiasm and restarted the campaign against the old foe of polio, a disease which cripples millions of people.
Philanthropist, Bill Gates, last year promised a 102 million dollar donation in the cause of fighting the disease. Similarly, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, donations of over 50 million dollars have been made in the hope of eradicating the disease. Rotary International has already given 1 billion dollars in fighting polio. Its most recent fundraising campaign is named “This Close”.
Tim Peterson, a polio expert with the Gates Foundation, said it is the best situation he’s ever seen and added that he sees light at the end of the tunnel.
In Tilkeshwar, malnourished people are a common sight. Their twisted limbs are a telltale sign of polio infection. One boy that looks to be around 10, says he is 17. He can barely walk and holds on to a piece of bamboo, which takes the place of his right leg – a shriveled limb that shows the sign of a disease he was infected with when only 6 months old.
A shy 3 year old girl, Lalti Kumari has been vaccinated 12 times and still managed to catch the virus in 2009. It is a classic case of vaccines becoming ineffective because of diarrhea and malnutrition, two very common problems in rural India.
Although the little girl’s story is tragic, it still offers hope, as she is one of the last people to catch the virus in that area.
The war against polio has been waged ever since the arrival of modern sanitation. Along with new treatments came new risks also. As younger children began to come into contact with polio less often (and as side effects are rarer in younger infants), older children that contracted the disease had severe nervous system effects which crippled their limbs and made them walk on crutches or sit in wheelchairs for the rest of their lives.
Even in the United States, polio was so widespread that parents often kept their children away from public pools, cinemas and other public places. Schools delayed their openings until the outbreaks stopped. Every summer, when the virus was most active, thousands were paralyzed or killed.
Jonas Salk invented an injectable vaccine from dead polio cells in 1953. A few years later, Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine which was much more accessible and easier to administer. Thanks to their efforts, in the US alone, cases dropped from 21,000 to 61 in just 13 years.
After the overwhelming success in eradicating smallpox in the 1980, health officials turned their attention to polio.
In a global effort to wipe the world clean of polio, the World Health Assembly started their campaign in 1988, aiming to eradicate the virus by the year 2000. In less than 2 decades, the Americas, the Western Pacific and Europe were all clean of polio.
However, the campaign was cut short in Africa and central Asia. Although infections were down to 1,000 cases a year from 350,000, the disease was nowhere near defeated.
Smallpox was easily detected as it produced a rash in every sufferer, however, polio was proving to be much more elusive. Not all infections resulted in sickness, although everyone infected could spread the disease further with their stool.
Because of Muslim leaders that spread lies about the vaccine, telling parents that it was an American conspiracy to sterilize their children, many thousands of children suffered needlessly, as health workers could not reach and vaccinate them in some of the most poorest countries in the world.
In India, the problem of malnutrition and diarrhea meant that vaccines were ineffective most of the time, which made vaccination a losing battle.
Even though sponsors had been losing hope, as well as money (the campaign had already cost 9 billion dollars and a further 750 million dollars each year), it seemed victory was near in India.
With the new research being done on polio and new, more effective vaccines being brought in, it seems, polio might just become the new smallpox – in other words, a thing of the past.11