Twenty years after the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched, the concerns for the first time are not just about the eradication of the wild polio virus, but also that a significant funding shortfall threatens the scale of the project.

According to a WHO report, a 50 per cent drop in the overall funding for the polio eradication programme has also been reported. The World Health Assembly has expressed deep concern over the $1.3 billion funding shortfall (out of a budget of $2.6 billion) over the next three years. “This financing shortfall is a serious risk to the eradication of polio — activities are already being cut back or postponed due to a lack of funds,” a WHO report says.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan urged the funding countries to continue contributing. “The next three years, and especially the next 12 months, are critical to the polio eradication initiative and, by extension, the entire international public health agenda,” she has said.

The urgency is enhanced by the achievements of the last couple of decades, where the number of cases has fallen dramatically. By 2008, only four countries were identified as endemic to polio, including India. As per the National Polio Surveillance Project figures, the total number of cases of confirmed polio for the year 2010 so far was 39. Uttar Pradesh (10), Bihar (9) and Jharkhand (7) form the bulk of the cases, with Maharashtra (5) and West Bengal (6) and Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir (one each), indicating areas of concern for the country.

However, owing to the nature of modern travel, the existence of the wild polio virus in any State rules out complacency, as migration (largely for work) means the virus can be transmitted anywhere. In fact, genetic studies on the polio virus that caused an outbreak in Tajikistan earlier this year identified an Indian strain.

States are also geared up with special schemes to target such a possibility of transmission. Tamil Nadu, which has had experience in firefighting after the last case was traced back to north India, has special immunisation camps for migrant workers and intensive mop up campaigns after the two specific Immunisation Days.

R.T. Porkaipandian, director of Public Health says: “We have to be really careful and there is no room to relax, though our last case was recorded in 2004. It is top priority for the Public Health Department and we have partners to help us during the immunisation days.”

The main partner is Rotary International, which has been a key supporter of the campaign at the global level too. Rotarians, so far have contributed over $1.2 billion (Rs.5,500 crore) for over 25 years. 

The club's involvement in the programme includes operational support (procurement of  vaccination, cold chain), surveillance, social mobilisation and research. In India alone, over $129 million (Rs.645 crore) was spent in addition to the time and effort by Rotarians, says Olivannan Gopalakrishnan, district governor, R.I. District 3230.

In addition, Rotary has played a major role in decisions by donor governments to contribute more than $4 billion to the effort, he adds. However, he articulates the opinion of the club when he says they have cause to worry about financial commitments for the polio programme.

“At a time when India is at the final stage to eradicate polio, we are keen on soliciting funds from corporates and philanthropists to help Rotary deliver their commitment to make the world polio-free,” Mr. Olivannan adds.

There has been  success, with individuals such as Bill Gates, Usha and Laxmi Mittal, companies such as the Aditya Birla Group coming on board to endorse the campaign through financial support. At present, Rotary International is raising funds to match $200 million against the Challenge Grant from Gates' Foundation of $355 million.