A year without a recorded new case of polio – a major step towards its total eradication in India – was celebrated as a major success in the battle against the disease worldwide when it was announced last month.
On Tuesday, however, medical authorities were investigating a case of paralysis in a poverty-stricken area in the state of West Bengal.
“It is a suspected case of polio. In medical parlance, the symptoms are called acute flaccid paralysis. The patient is under observation,” Kumar Kanti Das, superintendent of Baruipur subdivisional hospital, told the local Hindustan Times newspaper.
The mother of the affected child – an 18-month-old girl – was reported as saying that several other children in her neighbourhood had shown similar symptoms.
The case occurred not far from where the last identified new polio victim was found in January 2011.
With no new cases since that identification, India was taken off the list of “polio endemic countries” in late February by the World Health Organisation.
Another two years are needed to pass without a case of the disease before the country of 1.2bn inhabitants would formally be declared free of the disease.
India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, hailed the passing of a year without a case as giving “hope that we can finally eradicate polio not only from India but from the face of the entire Mother Earth”.
However, the new case will raise fears that the fight against polio in India is yet to be won.
Last year, Sir Liam Donaldson, the UK’s former chief medical officer who now chairs the independent monitoring board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, said the final success of the eradication campaign, which has seen cases reduced by 99% in 20 years, was “on a knife-edge”. In some places, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, polio has even made a comeback. Other countries where the disease is still endemic include Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In India, a mass vaccination campaign involving more than a million volunteers reduced cases nationally by 94% between 2009 and 2010, from 741 to 42, and down to the single case last year.
The success was attributed to a combination of highly motivated local workers, philanthropy, the involvement of international health bodies and support of local government.