The feat raises the very real possibility that polio, like smallpox, could one day be consigned to history, along with the heartbreaking image of the Indian beggar, crawling on twisted, thin legs, pleading for alms.
Until 1995, India recorded 50,000 to 150,000 cases of polio each year. In 2009, 14 years into India’s campaign to eradicate polio, 741 Indian children still contracted the incurable disease, more than anywhere else in the world, and morale was sagging.
In 2010, the number fell to 42. In 2011, only a single new case was recorded, that of a 2-year-old girl who fell ill Jan. 13.
Anuradha Gupta, a joint secretary in India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, said the prevailing mood was one of hope, optimism and enthusiasm, but not smugness, given the risk that the disease could still find a way back from abroad.
“We needed this kind of success to keep morale up and to enhance public confidence in the program,” she said. “We do now feel it is possible, it is doable.”
In 1988, when the World Health Organization launched a global campaign to eradicate the disease, the poliovirus was paralyzing 1,000 children around the world every day, nearly half of them in India. Inspired by the success of the smallpox eradication campaign a decade before, the organization aimed to eliminate polio by 2000.
Persuading skeptical Muslims
It took seven years before India’s government mustered the political will, resources and manpower to act. And even when India finally began its mass vaccination campaign in 1995, the hurdles seemed almost insurmountable, especially in the desperately poor, astonishingly overcrowded plains of the north, where illiteracy was rife, malnutrition and disease rampant, and hygiene and public sanitation terribly inadequate.
To make matters worse, rumors spread among the region’s numerous Muslims that the polio vaccination campaign was an American conspiracy to wipe them out, by making their sons impotent and their daughters infertile.
“There are 500,000 Muslims in this area, but there is no proper drainage, no post office, no bank, no government school, no hospital where a mother can take her child,” said Qari Anwar Ahmad, the head of a madrassa in a Muslim neighborhood in the city of Meerut, 45 miles northeast of the nation’s capital, New Delhi. “So people were skeptical. ‘Why does the government only care about polio and not about these things?’ they asked.”
Vaccinators were stoned as they approached Muslim neighborhoods. “The general mind-set was that the immunization campaign was aimed at ending our lineage,” Ahmad said.