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Gates Foundation Reflections on a Polio-Free India

January 14, 2014

January 13, 2014 marked three years without a single case of wildpolio virus in India. This is a monumental achievement for India the global health community and, hopefully, children for generations to come.  Earlier this week, Bill Gates explained the significance of this milestone.  Several members of our polio eradication program team joined the foundation after spending years supporting the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in India. We wanted to hear their reflections on this milestone -- below is what they had to say.

Jay Wenger, Polio Director
Years in India: 2002-2007
Role: Project Manager, National Polio Surveillance Project (WHO-India)

While monitoring the polio program in western Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India and one of the last outposts of the virus in the country at the time, I was asked to visit a child diagnosed with polio.  The family lived in a poor section of the village in a one room house.  The baby was lying on one of their few possessions – a wooden bed frame with a lattice-work of rope for a mattress.  He had the unmistakable signs of polio – a limp, useless leg already starting to show signs of wasting.  A glance of hope in the mother’s eyes – hope that I could do something to fix her baby – stopped me in my tracks.  There was nothing I, or anyone else could do to fix her baby, to reverse the damage.  It was too late.  Too late to prevent a future of struggling with a disability that didn’t have to be.

But India had the capacity, skill and expertise to stop this kind of tragedy from going on forever.  In spite of poor sanitation, crowding and gaps in vaccine use, all of which combined to make India the one of the most challenging environments imaginable from which to eliminate the virus, India succeeded.   From the government leadership at the top, to the tireless efforts of the cadre of professionals I worked with, to the millions of Indian citizens who ultimately delivered the vaccine to every child in every corner of the country, India responded to that mother's - and all Indian parents' - call to help.  India's achievement is a shining example of the mobilization of an entire nation to achieve a good for all, and especially for the poor, among whom polio takes the greatest toll.  India showed it can be done, and it’s not too late to stop the suffering, forever.   

 This anniversary is much larger than the eradication of a virus – it signifies eradication of the word ‘impossible’ from the dictionary of global public health.Ananda Bandyopadhyay

Tim Petersen, Deputy Director
Years in India: 2005-2008
Role: Deputy Project Manager – Operations,  WHO National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP)

India was long considered the most difficult place in the world to stop polio transmission, so this anniversary marks a historic milestone for India and the global polio eradication initiative. This remarkable achievement provides an example of what is possible when the government, partners and community work together toward a common goal.  India’s success gives me confidence that polio eradication can be achieved.  I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to work on polio eradication in India and remain inspired by the unwavering commitment and personal sacrifices made by WHO and UNICEF staff, Rotarians, frontline health workers and volunteers for the program. They should all be commended for their accomplishments and join in this celebration.   

Ananda Bandyopadhyay, Program Officer, Polio
Years in India: 2006 – 2009
Role: Surveillance Medical Officer, National Polio Surveillance Project – World Health Organization

For me, this anniversary is much larger than the eradication of a virus – it signifies eradication of the word “impossible” from the dictionary of global public health. As the country fought for years and decisively won the battle against the crippling disease, I think India as a nation found yet another unifying thread for its diverse population of so many different religions, culture, caste and creed: this historic success establishes beyond any doubt that if we, the people, unite as a global community for a cause we strongly believe in, triumph is a matter of time.

On this anniverseary I can't help think about one mother I met. While monitoring vaccination activities on a rainy Sunday in a remote village in the north-eastern state of Assam in India, I had asked a mother of two kids how she had managed to come to the polio vaccination booth on barefoot braving the inclement weather, and her prompt response still resonates, “I don’t mind walking for a mile because I know I’m doing something that will make sure my daughters can walk and run for miles when they grow up.” I salute such seemingly ordinary people who made extraordinary sacrifices, overcame social, political, economic and geographic barriers, and contributed to bringing us closer than ever in stopping polio transmission globally.

Also, please check out Ananda's beautiful photo essay as he describes in pictures some of his work in India to fight polio.

We want to hear from you -- do you have a reflection on India's anniversary? Please share it with us below.

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