Three years ago, India faced its last confirmed case of polio, in Rukhsar Khatoon, in the CNN video above. Today, while she and the remaining Indian polio victims cannot be cured, there is hope for India’s future population, as the World Health Organisation has declared it polio free.
Polio is a crippling and potentially fatal infectious disease. It is caused by a virus which invades the nervous system and potentially causes irreversible paralysis. It was one of the most feared diseases in industrialised countries at the beginning of the 20th century, and was only combated after the introduction of effective vaccines in the 1950s and 1960s.
While the global effort to end polio was launched in 1988, India was still one of the four remaining endemic countries in 2006, along with Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. The keys to the success of the eradication efforts have included innovative refrigerator design, to deliver vaccines to remote villages. Vaccines are very cheap (at 12 cents per vaccine), but preserving them for long enough to reach people in remote locations is crucial for complete coverage. Another key element of the success was combating behaviour induced by cultural objections to taking the vaccines. This included communications work to prove the vaccines were safe, and build trust between administrators and the public.
Eradicating a disease anywhere is a huge milestone, given the multitude of practical, logistical and social aspects that it involves. Not only must effective and cheap vaccines be produced, but they must be transported and stored safely. People must be taught to accept and use these vaccines through social marketing, and the strategy used for targeting people to vaccinate could mean the difference between an 80% coverage goal and a 10% coverage goal.
We celebrate with India in this success. Disease eradication makes a huge impact on the wellbeing of people globally, now and in the years to come. To take smallpox as an example, the eradication of this disease has saved easily as many lives as world peace post 1800 would have done. We hope that by 2018, we will see similarly massive benefits with the end of polio.