New Delhi: On this day in 2014, WHO South-East Asia region was certified polio-free, proving wrong many public health experts, who believed that the region, which accounts for one-fourth of the global population, would be the last bastion for polio eradication. Five years on, the region not only continues to maintain its polio-free status, but is demonstrating how the polio legacy can effectively strengthen overall immunisation and other programs.

“Member countries, partners and the community themselves continue to work together to keep the crippling virus at bay. The polio program’s emphasis on innovation and reach is being replicated by many other public health programs with impressive results,” said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director, WHO South-East Asia region.

The last case of wild polio virus in the region was reported from West Bengal, India, where a two-year old girl suffered polio paralysis on January 13, 2011.  An intense response by Government of India supported by WHO, UNICEF, Rotary International and other partners ensured it remained the last case in WHO South-East Asia region.

Post certification, these efforts continue. Every year, more than 32 million children across the region are being reached with oral polio vaccines under routine immunisation and through mass polio vaccination campaigns to maintain high population immunity against it. In India, an additional 460 million doses of oral polio vaccines were given to children through four mass polio vaccination campaigns conducted in 2018.

Surveillance to detect polio continues to be further strengthened in the region. More than 75,000 stool samples were tested in 16 poliovirus laboratories in the region in 2018. Environmental surveillance for polio virus detection has been expanded three-fold in the last five years. Samples are now collected for testing from 74 sites in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand. In 2014, environment surveillance was conducted only in India, from 23 sites.

While continuing to maintain a strict vigil against polio, the entire machinery in the region is being strengthened with routine immunisation drive. 

There has been steady progress in immunisation with basic vaccines provided in the first year of life. Nearly 88% of children in the region are receiving three doses of the basic vaccines before they turn one year old. In seven of the 11 countries, this coverage is over 90%. All countries have introduced at least two new vaccines under their routine immunisation program to protect children from vaccine preventable diseases.

Polio programme and its lessons are guiding efforts to eliminate measles and control rubella, a flagship priority programme in WHO South-East Asia region.

The polio network is also supporting countries to strengthen vaccine preventable disease surveillance.

“This day is a reminder of our momentous victory against polio, a reminder of our commitment towards the health of our children, and a reminder of our potential, of our determination to turn the impossible into the possible,” the regional director said.