This past Saturday, I was among 1000 people who were the first to hear the most wonderful news: Reading a letter India’s Health Minister had just received from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan, Shri Ghulam Nabi Azad announced that the WHO officially removed India from the polio endemic country list. India had successfully reached one year without a reported case of wild poliovirus.
It was like a dream come true. I felt unparalled joy about what India had accomplished - finally the perfect reward for what’s been a very long journey.
Until very recently, India had more polio cases than any country in the world. For more than a decade, working as the lead for polio surveillance at a national and state level in Bihar and more recently in my role at the Gates Foundation, I have joined millions of volunteers, health workers and community and religious leaders, as well as global partners Rotary International, WHO, UNICEF and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and donors, in a sustained and dedicated campaign to rid India of wild poliovirus once and for all.
Saturday was also a celebration of this great partnership in global health.
Steve Cochi (CDC), Raja Sabu (former Rotary International President), Dr. Devendra Khandait ( Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Dr. Hamid Jafari (National Polio Surveillance Project), and Bruce Aylward (World Health Organization) at the Polio Summit 2012 on February 25, 2012.
Our success has not come easy. It took commitment, tenacity, extensive resources, dedicated workers, high-quality vaccination campaigns, routine immunization programs and an unwavering commitment from the Government of India and our polio partners.
And it was a joyful day to know that all of India’s children are reaping the reward of our hard work and persistence.
Success in India proves that polio can be stopped in the toughest places in the world. It demonstrates the possibility of tremendous progress even in the face of difficult economic times, a challenging environment and competing development needs. And it means we can stop polio everywhere, so that no child again, anywhere is ever crippled by this disease.
But, we can’t sit back and rest on our laurels. We must remain vigilant here in India and stay as committed, if not more so, than we’ve been before.
Now, more than ever, we must ensure India's polio program continues to move forward until global eradication is achieved and translate gains into stronger systems that save and improve the lives of children. This includes the great work in managing measles immunization, surveillance, and other critical health services. We also must inspire other polio endemic countries to continue to use lessons learned from India to their own benefit.
I was privileged to play a small role in this monumental effort, and will do my part to stay focused on the prize of a polio-free world.