India will celebrate a full year since its last reported case of polio on Friday, a major victory in a global eradication effort that seemed stalled just a few years ago.
If no previously undisclosed cases of the crippling disease are discovered, India will no longer be considered polio endemic, leaving only Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria on that list.
“This is a game changer in a huge way,” said Bruce Aylward, head of the World Health Organization’s global polio campaign.
The achievement gives a major morale boost to health advocates and donors who had begun to lose hope of ever defeating the stubborn disease that the world had promised to eradicate by 2000.
It also helps India, which bills itself as one of the world’s emerging powers, shed the embarrassing link to a disease associated with poverty and chaos, one that had been conquered long ago by most of the globe.
The government cautiously welcomed the milestone as a confirmation of its commitment to fighting the disease and the 120 billion rupees ($2.4 billion) it has spent on the program.
“We are excited and hopeful. At the same time, vigilant and alert,” Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said in a statement. Azad warned that India needed to push forward with its vaccination campaign to ensure the elimination of any residual virus and to prevent the import and spread of virus from abroad.
The polio virus, which usually infects children in unsanitary conditions, attacks the central nervous system, sometimes causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.
With its dense population, poor sanitation, high levels of migration and weak public health system, India had been seen as “the perfect storm of polio,” Aylward said. Even some vaccinated children fell ill with the virus because malnutrition and chronic diarrhea made their bodies too weak to properly process the oral vaccine.
In 2009, India had 741 cases. That plunged to 42 in 2010. Last year, there was a single case, an 18-month-old girl named Ruksana Khatun who fell ill in West Bengal state Jan. 13. She was the country’s last reported polio victim.
Part of the sudden success is credited to tighter monitoring that allowed health officials to quickly hit areas of outbreaks with emergency vaccinations. Part is also attributed to the rollout of a new vaccine in 2010 that more powerfully targeted the two remaining strains of the disease.
CBSNews & www.theendofpolio.com