The World Health Organisation (WHO) has removed India from the list of polio-endemic countries, suggesting that the wild polio virus had been totally eliminated from the environment. The disease paralysed thousands of children every year for several decades.

This announcement was made by Health and Family Planning Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad here at the Polio Summit 2012 in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, amidst a thunderous applause. The feat came after India successfully completed an entire year without an incidence of polio.

Mr. Azad said he received a letter from the United Nations body stating that the “WHO has taken India's name off the list of polio endemic countries in view of the remarkable progress that we have made during the past one year.”

However, India will have to remain polio free for two more years before it is declared polio-free by the WHO.

There were only four countries in the WHO endemic list, including Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan. India reported its last polio case on January 13, 2011 in West Bengal. In 2009, it reported 741 polio cases, more than anywhere else in the world. In 2010 only 42 cases were reported against 1.5 lakh in 1985.

“We are greatly encouraged by the splendid progress that we have made during the last one year. We are aware that we cannot drop our guard,” Mr Azad said while drawing attention to the persistent risks of indigenous transmission and importations from other endemic countries.

“We have, therefore, put in place an Emergency Preparedness and Response Plan across the country. Under this plan, there is going to be zero tolerance for any new polio case and such a case will be declared as a public health emergency,” the Minister said.

Rapid response teams have already been formed in all States to respond to any polio case. In addition, we have alerted all the States bordering the neighbouring countries to strengthen surveillance for early detection of any imported polio virus. Special booths have been established on the Wagah border and the Attari train station in Punjab, and the Munabao train station in Rajasthan to ensure that all children under the age of 5 coming from across the border are given polio drops.

Reaffirming India's commitment to achieving full immunisation, Dr. Singh said the real credit should go to to the 23 lakh volunteers who repeatedly vaccinated children even in the most remote areas often in very bad weather conditions. “We must ensure every child, rich or poor, whether living in Ladakh or in Delhi, has equal access to the best immunisation.”

Dr. Singh also emphasised the need for providing nutritious food, safe drinking water, proper sanitation and education, in addition to universal access to safe vaccines.

Recounting how India reached the first step for becoming a polio-free country, Mr. Azad said 27 per cent of the global expenditure on polio eradication came from the country's domestic resources. More than 99 per cent coverage of children in the two remaining endemic States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh was unprecedented, not witnessed anywhere else in the world on such a large scale.

WHO Assistant Director-General (Polio) Bruce Aylward delivered WHO Director-General Margaret Chan's letter to India, which states: “WHO will remove India from the list of endemic countries with polio virus.”

Mr. Aylward said: “It is an incredible achievement” which has come about due to the perseverance of Indian government and its people. “India's success has inspired the world.”

More In: Health | Sci-Tech | News | National