Polio is a disease that invades the spinal cord and brain, causing muscle weakness and atrophy, and, in severe cases, permanent paralysis or death. The polio virus lives and replicates in the intestines and spreads either from person-to-person contact or by ingestion of anything that is contaminated.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched in 1988 when there were an estimated 350,000 polio cases worldwide. At that time it was projected that polio would be completely eradicated by 2002. By 2000, aggressive vaccination programs had reduced the number of cases worldwide to less than 2,000 in seven countries.
However, polio has made a comeback, primarily in Nigeria, Pakistan and India. In India alone, the number of cases rose from 268 in 2001 to 1,600 a year later.
An article in the October 2003 National Geographic by Bijal P. Trivedi examines the reasons for polio’s return to India after its near-eradication, while noting that India now aims, through multiple campaigns targeting 165 million children, to totally eradicate this paralyzing disease by 2005.
Trivedi observes that the majority of the victims in India live in Uttar Pradesh, which is the country’s most populous state and one of its poorest, where “people are crowded together, with open sewers the norm.”
An unusual intervening factor derives from the fact that nearly two-thirds of the polio sufferers in Uttar Pradesh are Muslim, and, because male strangers cannot enter the homes of Muslim women, the immunization efforts by the Indian government and other organizations are bogged down by this tradition.
Added to the concern related to male workers, repeated visits from health care workers raise suspicion in the Muslim-led communities that there is an undercover birth control effort on the part of the Hindu-led government. As a result, many children are not receiving the four doses of polio vaccine because their parents refuse to allow multiple visits.
According to Trivedi, the Indian government, in 2002, reduced mass immunizations everywhere, including high-risk zones, because at that time cases had been declining sharply. This decision now is seen as a “tragic error” and, according to this report, “the government has changed tactics, targeting the needs of the poor, including the country’s Muslim minority.”
As part of the new, intensified campaign to eradicate polio, “trusted local school teachers, academics, doctors and imams have joined immunization teams and nearly every team now includes at least one woman.” In addition, “mosques announce vaccination days on the same loud speakers used to call worshipers to prayer.”
A spokesman for the National Polio Surveillance Project in India triumphantly adds, “We are closing in on this virus once and for all.”
The National Geographic article remarks, “the hope is to eradicate polio from India — and from the Earth — by 2005.”