By Kathleen Sebelius
March 28, 2012
In January, India marked an incredible achievement: one year since the country's last reported case of polio. That is cause for celebration -- not just in India but around the world. Twenty years ago, there were more than 100 polio-endemic countries; now, only three remain.
Such a victory over polio seemed almost impossible just a decade ago. India's tropical climate is conducive to the survival and spread of the disease. Meanwhile, India's dense, ethnically and linguistically diverse population made it difficult for the government to reach its most at-risk citizens. So, even as the government eliminated the disease from much of the country over the past 15 years, polio hotbeds stubbornly remained.
That India is free of wild polio today is a testament to the commitment of the Indian government. It invested more than $1 billion over the last decade and collaborated with community leaders, health workers, businesses, and parents to fight the disease. The success is also the product of an international partnership that brought together governments, including the United States, Japan, and Norway; nongovernmental organizations, such as Rotary International and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and multilateral agencies, namely, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund.
I saw the fruits of that partnership firsthand in January, when I traveled to New Delhi as part of a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services delegation. We administered polio vaccine drops to children at one of many vaccination sites across India. During each of India's periodic National Immunization days, health workers collectively immunize 175 million children against polio. The victory over the disease in India has saved millions of lives from disability and death. And although the world must remain vigilant against polio to prevent its resurgence, India's success will gradually allow the nation to focus resources and experience on diseases and initiatives.
Beyond the Indian success story, we have made great progress around the globe. In 1988, when the World Health Assembly pledged to eradicate polio, there were more than 350,000 cases worldwide. Last year, there were fewer than 700. Since 1988, the United States has provided polio-endemic countries with critical on-the-ground support. In India, specifically, U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officials have been working side by side with local colleagues to eradicate the disease.
Today, those officials and global health experts collaborate on the design and maintenance of highly effective polio surveillance systems. These disease detectives work with government and other partners to investigate outbreaks and stop their spread. And at CDC headquarters, polio experts help analyze and interpret the latest information on the virus, monitor progress toward eradication, and use this information to help those on the ground adjust their strategies. But challenges remain. Currently, there are three polio-endemic countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. And three other countries that were once polio-free -- Angola, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- have seen a return of the virus in recent years.
In May, the WHO's executive board will ask its member countries' ministers of health to declare the upsurge a global public health emergency that requires urgent, additional measures. For polio-affected countries, this would mean full implementation of current and new eradication strategies, enhanced national oversight, and greater vigilance and support from around the world.
The CDC, too, recently activated its emergency operations center for polio activities, and agencies across the U.S. government will continue working with partners around the world to implement mass polio vaccination campaigns. They will support improved surveillance, community mobilization, and quality evaluation, while holding partners to the highest levels of accountability.
The world is a small place. When people, goods, and microbes can move around the world in a matter of hours, a health threat anywhere is a health threat everywhere. Eradicating polio not only means saving countless children and families and tens of billions of dollars in treatment and care, it also represents new opportunity and growth for entire communities and countries. When one nation eradicates polio, it is a victory for the entire world.