NEW DELHI — India on Monday marked three years since its last polio case was reported, a major milestone in eradicating the crippling disease.
The marker puts the country on course to being formally declared polio-free in March. The World Health Organization stills need to confirm there are no undetected cases before making the official declaration.
Polio is a vaccine-preventable disease that has been eradicated in most countries. But it still causes paralysis or death in some parts of the world, including Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Polio usually infects children under age 5 when they drink contaminated water. The virus attacks the central nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and, in some cases, death.
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Despite India’s success against the disease, there are many people here for whom the vaccination campaigns have come too late. Polio victims with withered, twisted limbs are a common sight on the streets of Indian cities.
Sonu Kumar did not have access to the polio vaccine when he was struck by the disease as a 10-year-old boy.
“My parents were very poor and couldn’t afford medical treatment for me,” said Kumar, who is paralyzed from the waist down. The 24-year-old begs outside a temple in central Delhi and uses a wheelchair to move around.
Some years ago, Kumar saw a TV advertisement by a charity organization offering free treatment to polio victims in a western Indian city. Doctors who examined him said it was too late for him to get medical help.
Last year, the WHO removed India from a list of countries with active endemic wild polio transmission after India passed one year without registering any new cases.
An army of nearly a quarter of a million volunteers, doctors and medical workers had carried out a rigorous last-mile campaign across the country to vaccinate children over a period of three years to wipe out the scourge. The number of polio cases came down from 741 in 2009 to 42 in 2010. The last case of polio was reported from eastern India in 2011.
India is now tightening its travel laws to prevent the re-entry of the virus, especially from neighboring Pakistan.
Last month, New Delhi announced that travelers from Pakistan would have to show proof that they have been administered the oral polio vaccine at least six weeks prior to their departure for India.
India’s health ministry was still waiting Monday for the last reports from different parts of the country to come in, before making a formal declaration. However, junior home minister R.P.N. Singh already tweeted: “Proud day for all of us as Indians … India is polio free for three years.”