India goes 12 months without a new case of polio

But must remain vigilant and continue vaccination programme, says WHO

India has recorded no new cases of polio in a year for the first time in its history, which is a major milestone for a country that was once recognised as the epicentre of the disease.

There were 150,000 cases of polio in India in 1985, but the country has now gone 12 months since discovering a case – which was in a two-year-old girl in West Bengal.

If all pending data comes in negative over the next few weeks, India will officially be deemed to have stopped indigenous transmission of wild poliovirus. The number of countries where polio is endemic will then be reduced to an historical low of three: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) says there is no room for complacency and India must maintain surveillance and high childhood immunity against wild poliovirus to guard against any importation of polio until eradication is achieved globally.

In 2011, Afghanistan and Pakistan both saw alarming increases in polio cases, and poliovirus from Pakistan re-infected China (which had been polio-free since 1999). In Africa, active polio transmission continues in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, with outbreaks in West and Central Africa in the past 12 months.

Global health authorities today paid tribute to the government of India for its leadership and financial commitment to the polio eradication effort. Each year more than 170 million children under the age of five are vaccinated in two national immunisation campaigns, with up to 70 million children in the highest-risk areas vaccinated multiple times in additional special campaigns. The whole effort requires nearly a billion doses of oral polio vaccine annually.

‘India’s success is arguably its greatest public health achievement and has provided a global opportunity to push for the end of polio,’ said WHO director-general Margaret Chan.

‘Stopping polio in India required creativity, perseverance and professionalism – many of the innovations in polio eradication were sparked by the challenges in India. The lessons from India must now be adapted and implemented through emergency actions to finish polio everywhere.’

In common with all countries that have stopped indigenous wild poliovirus transmission, India must continue to protect its children through supplementary immunisation activities and improved routine immunisation coverage rates or risk a potentially horrific re-importation event, said Thomas Frieden, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘Polio’s history contains many cautionary tales,’ he added. ‘Polio anywhere in the world is a risk everywhere in the world, and to protect itself from a setback, India is appropriately planning to continue meticulous monitoring and intensive childhood vaccination against polio.’

Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said: ‘This is a major milestone in the global fight against polio. Children in India are now protected against this debilitating, but preventable disease, bringing us one step closer to saving and improving the lives of all children.

‘Polio can be stopped when countries combine the right elements – political will, quality immunisation campaigns, and an entire nation’s determination.

‘We must build on this historic moment and ensure that India’s polio programme continues to move full-steam ahead until eradication is achieved.’