by Peerzada Arshad Hamid
SRINAGAR, Indian-controlled Kashmir, Jan. 20 (Xinhua) -- The World Health Organization (WHO) is currently busy analyzing data from India about its claim that no case of polio was reported from the country during last three years.
WHO officials involved in the polio-eradication campaign in India wanted to be sure that transmission of indigenous poliovirus has stopped in the country before they can declare India as polio- free.
The data analysis is likely to get completed next month after which India would be declared as a polio-free nation.
January 13 this year marked India's three years in a row without a single new polio case being reported.
Sona Bari, Geneva based spokesperson of WHO's polio-eradication campaign, in an exclusive interview with Xinhua, hailed India's efforts in achieving the feat.
"This is a historic achievement in public health, of which the government of India and all the polio eradication partners can be justly proud," said Bari. "It sets the stage for the entire South East Asian region of WHO to be certified polio-free."
The last case of polio in India was reported on January 13, 2011 from West Bengal.
India was once thought to be the most difficult country for polio eradication. Data available from the Indian health ministry showed that in 2009 India accounted for the highest number of polio cases or half of the total cases around the world.
For WHO India was one of the most technically-challenging places with experts and planners baffling over from where to eradicate polio in this huge country.
"For India, it was a combination of technical factors including dense population, large population numbers, high birth cohorts, inadequate health services, high enteric disease burden, inadequate sanitation infrastructure, hard-to-reach areas and large-scale population movements," said Bari. "India's eradication efforts started in earnest in 1995 with its first Pulse Polio vaccination rounds. At the time, India had well over 2, 500 cases of polio per year."
However, after years of intensified polio eradication initiatives, India has managed to curb the spread of poliovirus despite many hindrances.
In 2002, special strategies to reach India's under-served population were developed. Later on in 2004, new monovalent vaccines were introduced, and by 2007 efforts were focused on reaching mobile populations.
Subsequently in 2009, the new bivalent vaccine was introduced to allow simultaneous targeting of the two remaining virus strains in a single vaccine.
Bari said that the whole program, over the past decade, has been a herculean effort, by everybody involved. "The focus was not only in figuring out how to reach more than 172 million children under the age of five years across the country with multiple doses of vaccine but also to do so in a manner that maximizes the impact of each immunization contact," she said.
The Indian government has also hailed the Rotary International for its inspirational role in the eradication of polio in India.
"Equally important were the millions of vaccinators and social mobilizers -- ordinary Indians who walked from home to home to deliver vaccine and tell people about the importance of vaccination," Bari said.
The Indian government alone is said to have spent over 1 billion U.S. dollars for rooting out polio from its country.
Experts said in addition to that there was an international assistance of an estimated equal amount.
India's Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad described polio eradication from his country as a "historical milestone."
According to WHO, until global eradication of polio is achieved, it can still return to any country to assist in the anti-polio campaign.
Experts have warned India that it has to strengthen its surveillance even if it is already polio-free.
"India needs to and it has plans to hold vaccination campaigns, strengthen routine immunization and maintain sensitive surveillance until polio is eradicated worldwide," said Bari.