On March 27, 2014, India and the entire WHO South-East Asia Region were officially declared as being polio-free. This was hailed as a breakthrough in the fight to eradicate polio globally, as not only is India the second most populated country in the world, but just 12 years ago, it accounted for almost 70% of all polio cases worldwide.
“If you can do it in India, you can do it anywhere,” Oliver Rosenbauer, communications officer at the World Health Organization (WHO) and spokesperson for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), told Global Citizen. “That kind of changed the paradigm for the polio eradication effort.”
There were many challenges facing the eradication of polio in India specifically. The country’s large size and dense populations make vaccination programs difficult to execute. India’s poor sanitation infrastructure and diarrheal disease prevalence, as well as the country’s high monsoon and rainy season also make it harder to prevent new cases of polio.
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What’s more is that India sees extreme population movement, which makes vaccinating everyone especially difficult. At any given time across Northern India, there are 8 million people on the move, Rosenbauer explained.
“As far as poliovirus concern, everything came together in a perfect storm,” he said.
But through global eradication efforts and a commitment from within the country itself, India prevailed. The last known case of wild poliovirus was on Jan. 13, 2011, and after three years without any new wild poliovirus cases, the country was certified by the WHO as having officially eliminated the disease.
“It’s actually quite amazing to see that commitment and determination to keep polio out of India still remains strong, even five years after the fact,” Ramesh Ferris, polio survivor and advocate, told Global Citizen.
Ferris was born in India, but adopted by a Canadian family. He contracted polio in 1980, which he points out is 25 years after the polio vaccine was approved.
In 2002, he went to India to meet his birth mother.
It doesn’t matter what team you’re on we must all come together as one team 2 Continue fight 2 #EndPolio#vaccineswork#BeatNTDs#HealthForAll#G7@G7 thanks @ElizabethMay@CanadianPM@JustinTrudeau@AndrewScheer@LarryBagnell for your support! @GlblCtzn@Rotary@GlblCtznImpactpic.twitter.com/iI26SrhIIw— RAMESH FERRIS (@RAMESHFERRIS) April 23, 2018
“That’s when I … saw for the first time, polio survivors crawling on the ground,” he recalled. “They didn’t access, obviously to the vaccine, but they didn’t also have access to rehabilitation.”
This trip inspired Ferris to become the tireless polio eradication advocate he is today.
He said that eliminating polio in India seemed like a daunting task, but he was hopeful after doing research and seeing how many partners were involved in eradication efforts — from female health workers to global governments to organizations like Rotary International.
Working as an advocate ever since, Ferris has seen firsthand the importance of vaccination efforts in the remaining polio-endemic countries.
“The reality is that a case of polio anywhere in the world is a threat to children everywhere in the world,” he said. “We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to get rid of the world’s second [human] disease.”
And India’s polio-free certification is proof of that.
“We’re extremely close, closer than we’ve ever been before,” Rosenbauer said.
Wild polio persists in only three countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria — and there hasn’t been a wild polio case in Nigeria since 2016, meaning it, along with the WHO Africa Region, could soon be declared officially as polio-free.
One of the main challenges that Afghanistan and Pakistan are experiencing is population movement, Rosenbauer said. Because India had to confront the same obstacle, strategies used there can now serve as a road map to address the issue, while adapting them to local contexts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A polio-free life is every child’s right!— UNICEF India (@UNICEFIndia) October 6, 2018
India has been declared polio-free, but to ensure that no child suffers from polio again, we need to let the victory continue to #EndPolio.
The polio vaccines are safe so get your children vaccinated to #StayPolioFree. pic.twitter.com/8WknsL7BGC
“Sure, there’s still challenges, but the progress curve is continuing,” Rosenbauer said. “Someone said here the other day: ‘It looks like we might achieve the impossible.’”
The world is currently on track to eradicating this disease once and for all. In 1988, there were an estimated 350,000 cases when the GPEI was launched. In 2018, there were just 33. That is what makes continued commitment and funding from governments, partners, and Global Citizens all the more pressing.
Rosenbauer adds that ensuring polio eradication is now just a question of political and societal will. He says it’s now “up to us” because we know this disease can be eradicated — India proved that.
“It will have been essentially our choice not to eradicate this disease, and then we can only blame ourselves for the consequences of what will happen,” he said. “And the consequences are very clear: This disease is going to come roaring back right across the world and we’re going to see outbreaks all over the world again so India kind of changed everything in that sense.”