Polio raises its ugly head in West Bengal

Bengal comes under global polio glare

Calcutta, March 27: Bengal confronts today what India almost banished yesterday.

The state has become the focal point of international polio-control efforts after it reported the country’s only case so far this year.

The spotlight on Bengal came at a meeting of around 30 public health experts, including five from abroad, held in Calcutta yesterday to devise strategies to ward off an outbreak in the state.

The experts are worried that the success achieved in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar — where polio was once endemic but which have not had a single case in the past six months — may be undone if Bengal continues to throw up more such instances.

The Bengal case has set off alarm bells ringing all the more because the patient, an 18-month-old girl from Howrah, who had apparently not been vaccinated was infected with the Type-I virus. The strain can trigger outbreaks and paralyse one of every 200 children infected.

The concerns have been highlighted in a dossier, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative Report, prepared by experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO), Unicef and other agencies.

“The total number of cases for 2011 remains 1 (wild poliovirus type 1 (WPV1), Howrah). However, this one case continues to raise concerns, given that it is in a district next to the densely populated city of Calcutta, and within a highly mobile population,” says the report released last week.

With the international funding for polio eradication expected to dry up in 2015, the Bengal case has undermined global confidence that the disease will be wiped out soon.

Sona Bari, a WHO polio expert based in the agency’s Geneva headquarters, dubbed the Bengal case “frustrating”.

“We were really excited when there had not been any case from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for months. Then, suddenly, this case from Bengal came up and I have to accept that it was quite frustrating” Bari, among those who attended the Calcutta conference yesterday, said on the sidelines of the meeting. The meeting was organised by the state government, Unicef, the Centre’s National Polio Surveillance Programme and an NGO.

Bari warned that unless immunisation was made more effective and efforts launched to contain the virus in the pockets of Bengal where it resurfaces, the success in the heartland states could be neutralised.

“We always thought that India would be the last country to eradicate polio, until the success in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar changed that perception. But now, we need to be careful about the Bengal situation,” Bari said.

Bengal, however, has been showing the troubling trend since 2010. The Telegraph had reported on July 19, 2010, that the state had the country’s largest number of Type I polio cases, the more dangerous strain of the virus.

A senior state government official admitted “gaps” in the efforts. “We understand the importance of the situation and have been trying hard to improve performance and contain the problem,” he said.