By Lois Privor-Dumm

This is a moment we have been cautiously optimistic about. Was today going to finally be the day? Friday the 13th is not an unlucky day this year – it is the day that India has gone one year without a single new case of poliovirus!  Every time I look out the window as I’m driving around India, I witness the all-too-common sight of someone suffering the debilitating effects of the disease.  That image is a reminder about how horrible this disease is and that polio’s impact is not just on the individual, but a whole nation.

A man who contracted polio walks on crutches in the village of Kosi, 113 miles from Patna, India. Photo by Altaf Qadri / AP.

The efforts to stop this disease in India have been dramatic and it has been a roller coaster with significant ups and downs.  After 741 new cases in 2009, there were only 42 in 2010 – the country was almost there. And then in 2011, there was just a single new case in 18-month old named Rukhsar from West Bengal. It was a heartbreaking occurrence, but efforts persevered.

I am struck by the level of effort committed to this goal: government, civil society and international organizations including WHO, the National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP) based in Delhi, UNICEF, CDC and Rotary are all laser-focused on making sure that kids even in the hardest to reach places were immunized. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is also instrumental in these efforts. It was no easy feat, as we’ve seen in other polio-endemic countries including Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. India was considered one of the toughest countries to tackle, making this effort all the more impressive.

History of Polio Case Numbers in India

The infrastructure requires an enormous amount of coordination with stakeholders who were not part of the government or its partners. Civil society, including community and religious leaders, NGOs and others all needed to be engaged. The outcome of polio eradication efforts is not just the achievement of interrupting transmission, but the commitment that is gained by those involved in disease prevention efforts. I don’t work directly on polio, but I recognize the benefits of building an understanding of the value of vaccines, creating a system that can handle the supply chain, monitoring and evaluation and constant communication. On a recent GAVI consultation visit to India, I was very happy to hear that the discussion was about how we can leverage the infrastructure created by the polio efforts.

It is important that we learn the lessons from polio and leverage the best practices, not only in India, but in other large countries like Nigeria, where stopping Polio is also within reach. One of the biggest lessons is that there are a lot of stakeholders that contribute to a successful vaccine program – it takes a village. The government plays a big role, but it is the community, that will directly determine success. 

Building an understanding of what can be achieved, and helping to implement the strategies that can lead to that success, are ways that the IVAC team is privileged make contributions. We are all working towards the goal of improved health for people in countries like India and Nigeria. Today’s milestone inspires others to act in ways that can help not only polio eradication efforts, but disease prevention and control efforts more broadly. One year without a new case of polio in India is an important milestone, but as we continue to make great strides around the world, our best years are ahead of us.

Lois Privor-Dumm is the Director of Alliances and Information at IVAC.