October 31 was National Unity Day. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare chose this day to celebrate 25 years of the initiation of the Pulse Polio programme, which was a changemaker in achieving a polio-free India.
Dr. Harshvardhan, currently health and family welfare minister, said on this day, “This is to remember the historic day, October 2, 1994, which led the country to accept and adopt the strategy to immunise all children 5 years or younger in 1, 2,3 or 4 rounds.”
I remember this day, when Delhi was threatened by a plague that had spread from Surat and was approaching the capital. The question arose whether we should carry on with the immunisation programme or not. Dr. Harshvardhan, then minister of health in the Delhi government, was determined we go ahead. By the end of the day, we managed to immunise most children. This proved it could be done.
When did this idea of erasing polio from the face of the earth originate? This is history that must be known to the generations to come — how India fought its battle and ultimately won the war.
Way back in 1977, Sir Clem Renouf, who was nominated as President of Rotary International, was reading Reader’s Digest, in which there was an article about the eradication of smallpox. A thought came to his mind — could there be a second disease that could be eradicated and could Rotary take up that challenge?
This made him explore possibilities, with agencies such as Centre of Disease Control in USA. The affirmative opinion was almost unanimous — polio.
In 1979, Rotary acquired 6 million doses of polio drops OPV vaccine developed by Dr. Albert Sabin. Philippines accepted these 6 million doses and immunised the total population of young children in the country. This gave encouragement to Rotary, which adopted the policy of immunising all the children of the world by 2005, the year when Rotary would complete 100 year of existence.
Not much progress was made until 1985, when then Rotary International President Carlo Canseco together with Dr. Albert Sabin talked to WHO to join the crusade.
Thus, Polio Plus was born, with the understanding that polio would be the responsibility of Rotary. UNICEF joined hands with it, as did Centre Disease Control of USA. It was estimated that US$ 120 million would be required for immunising all children. Rotary collected 240 million dollars by 1988. What an underestimation it was! But it led to a challenge in which the whole world, including national governments, joined in.
The World Health Assembly in 1988 was when all countries, including India, decided to eradicate polio. Then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi committed India to move forward in this direction.
Unfortunately, no substantive progress was made and there was no positive strategy to achieve the goal. It was at that time that late Sudarshan Agarwal, a senior leader of Rotary in the country, was Secretary General of Rajya Sabha. He made MPs question the lukewarm work on polio eradication. Then Prime Minister Narsimha Rao was holding the portfolio of health in the absence of regular Health Minister.
The success of October 2, 1994 gave the movement direction, but more action was needed. State governments had to be convinced. I remember having been part of the political maneuvering in which we talked to the leadership of Congress-led states, telling them BJP would take the lead and they would lose this race. At the same time, BJP-governed states were being encouraged to follow the example of Delhi.
At that time, AR Antulay was health minister of the country and he had convened a meeting of all health ministers of all states. I personally was deeply involved in the polio eradication programme of Rotary and having been a Trustee of the Rotary Foundation after becoming President of Rotary International , I made a presentation about the need to work together to make India polio-free. This meeting was very crucial and the health ministers unanimously adopted the strategy of National Immunisation Day. There was no looking back after this.
Rotary was supporting the supply of vaccine to India as also funding the activities of WHO and UNICEF in India. However, it was realised that if success had to be achieved, the Government of India would have to be in the driving seat.
India was very fortunate that regardless of which party was in power at the Centre, the health ministers were totally committed in achieving a polio-free India. State by state, India was moving towards zero case status, but UP and Bihar remained our Waterloo.
The biggest challenge was to have all the communities accept the drops. We finally managed to win the confidence of religious leaders and the drive attained more success.
We were very close, but suddenly, we had one case in 2011 in Howrah, West Bengal. This last case was that of Rukhsar, a two-year-old girl. In 2012, the Centre and Rotary organised the Polio Summit, and just when we were ready to start the inauguration at Vigyan Bhavan, New Delhi, Bruce Alwyard from WHO. Geneva announced that India had been removed from the active spread of polio virus.
Come March 26, 2014, and India was certified polio-free by WHO. After India did it, the world started believing that polio could be eradicated from the face of the earth.
We are now on the verge of achieving a polio-free world. Nigeria has been without polio for the last three years. The only two countries that remain are Pakistan and Afghanistan. The focus of the whole world is on these two countries. As long as there is even one child suffering from polio, the virus is active. India has to be very alert, and must continue to immunise its children.
Having achieved polio-free India, we have to keep India polio-free.
(The writer is former President of Rotary International)