Ellyn Ogden has coordinated USAID’s polio eradication initiative since 1997 and is a frequent visitor to India.
Western Uttar Pradesh was once seen as the world’s largest reservoir of polio virus. Four districts, namely Moradabad, Bareilly, Rampur and Badaun, were considered the ‘Hot 4’ and for many years, people speculated that the last polio cases would be from these districts. But the skeptics were wrong. The districts pulled together, involved all ministries, not just the health sector, and held everyone accountable for performance. The District Magistrates took charge and became personally involved in solving any obstacles that would crop up. Vacant medical officer positions were filled and progress was monitored closely.
Across India messages travelled the TV and radio airways. Celebrities and sports legends lent their support. Rotarians urged everyone to participate, provided much needed financing, and rolled up their sleeves to help out during the campaigns. CORE and UNICEF Mobilizers spent countless hours answering mothers’ questions, and in some places visited every pregnant woman to sensitize her in advance of the need for immunization. When the baby was born, the mother would then receive a ‘congratulations’ card, an immunization card and education on how to protect the child from a range of diseases. These extraordinary efforts make a difference far beyond polio eradication.
The last polio case in India was in Howarah District of West Bengal. It was not in the ‘Hot 4.’ It was in a child who was never vaccinated against polio in the routine system. It was in an unexpected area, demonstrating the importance of a robust surveillance system. The rapid outbreak response by the West Bengal government has been exceptional. The health team in the area knows how fragile the situation is. Still, far too many families refuse vaccination, there are periodic shortages of the trivalent vaccine used in the routine system, there are vacant medical officer posts, and routine immunization sessions happen once a month rather than the needed once a week in many rural areas.