January 13, 2012 |

Toward eradicating polio in India

Today marks a year since a child in India was paralyzed by polio. In October, PATH’s Lesley Reed saw vaccinations that are helping India come closer to eradicating the disease.

The lights are off at the Bijadandi Primary Health Center, so when we enter the delivery ward, the yellow blanket that swaddles the day-old baby seems as bright as the sun breaking through an overcast sky. The tiny boy with the scrunched-up face doesn’t have a name yet, but his mother is 25-year-old Rukamini. She sits cross-legged beside him on the white hospital cot and looks worried.

Click on images to enlarge.

We’ve come to the health center to meet Dr. Arvind Kumar Nagariya, the district’s immunization officer. PATH has been collaborating with his team to improve immunization rates in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. After describing how PATH has helped boost the program, Dr. Nagariya mentions that two babies are about to receive their polio vaccines.

Two drops into a tiny mouth

At first, I wonder if our arrival has upset Rukamini. But no, it’s the baby. He isn’t nursing, she tells Dr. Nagariya. While a nurse prepares the polio vaccine, the doctor explains how to best position the baby for breastfeeding. He insists that she keep trying, but his voice is also reassuring.

Then the vaccine is ready. Rukamini lays the sleeping child in her lap and smoothes the yellow blanket over his chest. The boy wakes when the nurse pulls down his chin and releases the two precious drops into his mouth. Startled, he cries in little squeaks, then falls back asleep.

Mother and child are part of an effort to end the threat of polio in India. Only with a strong immunization system can this child from a remote area in India be protected and polio eradicated.

Three doses to come

We leave Rukamini and her son to try breastfeeding again and walk to the storage room where the manager describes how he keeps vaccines at optimal temperature until they’re distributed to 132 villages. Later, we’ll meet others who are part of this effort to protect Rukamini’s baby—and every Indian child—from polio and other childhood diseases: village volunteers who will remind Rukamini to bring the boy to local immunization days and the visiting nurse who will give him three more doses of polio vaccine before he’s a year old.

But I’m still worried about Rukamini’s baby. Before we leave, I find the doctor and he assures me the boy has figured out how to nurse. With the help of mother’s milk, his body is building immunity against many of the illnesses that can strike a baby in India. And with the help of the vaccine, he’ll be protected from polio.

Global health quiz

On Tuesday, we asked you to name the four countries where polio transmission still occurs. India is one, though the disease is close to eradication there. Pockets of polio transmission also persist in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. But the numbers are headed in the right direction. In 1988, there were 125 names on the list of polio-endemic countries.

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