We are looking for Rukhsar Khatoon, the young girl with the last reported case of wild poliovirus in India, when we set out for Shahpara village, near Kolkata in the Indian State of West Bengal. It had already been a long day of monitoring a polio immunization campaign and as we walk on, we see groups of vaccinators, lugging “vaccine carriers” and notebooks, headed back to the health center where they started the day’s activities.
Rukhsar, the focus of our search, was just 18 months old when she was paralyzed by polio in January 2011. Although her two siblings received polio vaccinations, Rukhsar was often sick with diarrhea and despite encouragement from local health workers her parents had thought it was safer for her to avoid the vaccine.
We find Rukhsar’s father on the broad, cobbled path that runs through the heart of the village and he leads us to his home. He, like most others in Shahpara, is an embroidery worker who spends long hours creating intricate designs with colorful thread and beads, the famous zardozi work that adorns beautiful clothing worn throughout the country.
Rukhsar is a chubby two-and-a-half-year-old and on this day she wears a bright orange dress.
The stream of doctors, polio workers, and media that have visited this little girl since her diagnosis has made her well known in the neighborhood, but she is still shy around visitors. She huddles against her mother, Shabida, as her family answers our questions. A host of extended family and neighbors gather around to hear her story as chickens and village dogs weave through the courtyard.
Thankfully, the effects of polio were mild and after extensive physical therapy, Rukhsar is now able to walk with little evidence of paralysis.
Her family is aware that she has been very fortunate.
They are now worried about other things: keeping her safe from other illnesses, equipping her to support her family, and, eventually, making sure she finds a caring husband and has a stable future. Since she came down with polio, they have encouraged other parents in their community to avoid the same mistake and have worked with local UNICEF staff to educate neighbors to about the vaccine.
Groups of children were everywhere as we left – playing at the feet of embroidering parents, and playing cricket in courtyards. All of these children are at risk for polio. And there was a time when many of them would have been at even greater risk from this debilitating disease. A teenager limps by with the help of a stick, reminding us of just how recently this greater risk existed. But will Rukhsar be the last to be affected by wild poliovirus in India?
There have been no other cases reported in India since hers. In this country – where some said polio could never be eradicated due to its sheer size, population density, poor sanitary conditions, weak public health system, and poor response to the vaccine -- thanks to millions of health workers, along with dedicated officials, community members and parents -- the tide has turned against polio.
Although we can’t say for sure that polio is gone from India yet, this is already a remarkable feat, of which India should be extremely proud.