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On the Hunt for Wild Polio in India

November 08, 2010

I was just in India, where I visited several villages in the Ghaziabad district of Uttar Pradesh, which is considered one of the hot spots in the battle to eradicate polio.

My guides there were two of the frontline workers investigating and tracking polio cases in newborns, Drs. Sujeet Jain and Bharat Dubey of the World Health Organization’s National Polio Surveillance Project in India.

This country-wide network helps detect the exact geographic locations where wild polioviruses are circulating, which is a critical step in preventing the spread of the disease.
Despite being a high-risk polio area due to its population density, migrant population, and poor infrastructure, Ghaziabad only reported two cases of polio this year, in contrast to 75 last year. This is largely due to high-quality house-to-house vaccination that has taken place in Ghaziabad. Although these numbers are impressive and encouraging, two cases is still two cases too many.
While there, I was introduced to Arshi, one of the two unfortunate children who contracted polio earlier this year in Ghaziabad. 

Arshi is a beautiful little girl who is almost two years old. Because of polio, her legs are weak and she is not able to stand on her own. 
In January, Arshi’s family suspected something was wrong, so, together with a member of the local surveillance network, they reported her as a potential polio case. Dr. Dubey was there the next day to examine her, and he sent her tests to the lab within days. Within a few weeks the results were back, confirming that Arshi had contracted polio.
The Government of India, with support from WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International, and other partners, conducts large-scale campaigns as a standard response to any confirmed case of polio, vaccinating two to five million children. In January and February, national immunization campaigns were already taking place throughout the country, so Ghaziabad was covered by these activities. It’s too late to protect Arshi from polio, but hopefully the number of polio transmissions in India will drop to zero next year, and no more children there will have to suffer Arshi’s fate. 
The children in India, like all children in the developing world, face numerous health challenges—malaria, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, to name a few. The difference is that we know how to eradicate polio. We’ve reduced polio by 99 percent, but the battleground for ridding the world of the disease forever is in four countries that have never stopped the virus—India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. It won’t be easy, and the world will need to dedicate more resources, but now is the time to finish the job and wipe out polio once and for all.
Immunizing children against preventable disease is the best way to save young lives. As we are eradicating polio, we can build off that momentum and infrastructure that was created for polio to help protect children against other vaccine preventable diseases, such as measles and tetanus.

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