As of today, India has gone three years without a single case of wild poliovirus, which means it’s now officially “polio-free.” India’s achievement is one of the most impressive accomplishments in global health, ever.
Five years ago, India was home to nearly half of the world’s new polio cases. At the time, if you asked any health expert, they would have said India would be the last place on earth to end polio. India’s population density and high birth rate (27 million new children are born each year), combined with poor sanitation, was like a petri dish for polio.
But the government of India, with help from the organizations that make up the Global Polio Eradication Initiative including Rotary International launched an all-out effort to stop the disease. The country deployed 2 million vaccinators to reach children who had never before been reached with polio vaccines or any other health services—children who live in flooded regions or hard-to-find rural towns, or are regularly in-transit with their families. One of the most powerful images I’ve seen during my visits to India is that of parents proudly holding vaccination cards showing that their children were protected from deadly diseases for the first time.
And now that these children have been found, health workers can supply them with much more than just polio drops. They can provide other critical health services like measles vaccines, clean water, and information about how to deliver their babies safely and care for them during their first weeks of life.
India’s victory galvanized the global health community to commit to achieving a polio-free world by 2018. Now, we only have 3 more countries to go, down from 125 in 1988. All three countries face unique challenges that make eradication difficult, but India’s success gives the polio program valuable lessons to apply in the remaining countries and confidence that eradication is possible.
India’s success is cause for celebration – but not complacency. We saw last year, in Syria and the Horn of Africa, how this disease can silently spread to places that have not had cases in many years. Two years before, polio popped up in more countries, including China and Tajikistan. These outbreaks are stark reminders that as long as polio exists in the last reservoirs in Northern Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, the disease is still a threat everywhere. India showed us what is possible – we can end polio, and protect all children everywhere from this debilitating disease forever. Doing the hard work to make this dream come true is up to us.