As recently as 2009, India was home to nearly half of the world’s polio cases, reporting more than 500 on an annual basis. This sobering statistic makes it all the more impressive – and encouraging – that today marks three years since the last case of wild polio was detected in that country.
For years, global health experts considered India to be one of the most technically challenging places to end polio. High population density, migrant populations, and poor sanitation created a trifecta of obstacles that, at times, seemed almost insurmountable. But a comprehensive polio effort launched in 2009 led to one of the greatest public health achievements in our time – the elimination of polio from one of the few remaining countries where the disease is endemic.
This effort included a surveillance network of more than 33,000 reporting sites, an army of 2.3 million dedicated vaccinators, and strategies to reach even the most remote, inaccessible areas. It was only possible thanks to the contributions and tireless work of many key partners, including partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UN agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
When it was announced in 2012 that India was polio-free, the country gave a collective shout of joy and sigh of relief. I could sense this feeling of relief and accomplishment when I visited India last year. During a 10-day trip across the country, I had the chance to visit several remote villages where polio was once commonplace. I can clearly picture the faces of many of the children I met during my travels, and it gives me great hope for the future of that vast, fascinating land to know that those children – and millions of others – can now live free from the fear of contracting a terrifying disease like polio.
In March, we will likely see India and the South-East Asia Region officially certified as polio-free, which will be a momentous occasion and a milestone for the worldwide polio eradication effort. The lessons we have learned from the fight against polio in India are now informing work in the remaining endemic countries, and a new global strategic plan is helping to drive progress toward eradicating polio by 2018.
Recent outbreaks in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, however, underscore the fact that the fight against polio must continue until the disease is completely eradicated. It isn’t enough to rest on the laurels of what has been achieved in India or elsewhere – we cannot let up or ease off until the job is completely done.
Look at how far a country like India has come in only three years. With concerted effort and unwavering commitment, the next three years can bring us ever closer to achieving a polio-free world.
Take Action: Join the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign to help protect children against polio and other devastating diseases. You can also follow me on Twitter at @chedquist to learn more about polio and other global health issues.