Acute flaccid paralysis is only a possible symptom of polio and not a conclusive trait, says health administrator

Less than 24 hours after a prominent national newspaper sparked off worldwide concern by reporting that polio had reappeared in India just a fortnight after it had been reported as eradicated, a top health administrator has lashed out at the media for misreporting the issue.

“Incorrect and unsubstantiated information can be a major setback for any programme,” said Anuradha Gupta, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who is in charge of polio eradication. “These reports are not only inaccurate, but also misleading and de-motivating for the polio workforce, who are working extremely hard to make India polio-free,” she said.

The Hindustan Times on Tuesday reported that an 18-month-old girl had been admitted to a government-run hospital in Kolkata with suspected polio. The child, hailing from South 24 Parganas district in West Bengal, showed symptoms of partial paralysis with movement disability, known in medical parlance as acute flaccid paralysis, or AFP — a possible symptom of polio.

Ms. Gupta's said the child's case was one of over 8,000 AFP cases to have been investigated by the National Polio Surveillance Project (NPSP) with the support of local health authorities since January 1 this year. Every one of these AFP cases had tested negative for polio.

“It is important to understand that polio is one of the several causes of AFP and not the only cause for AFP. It is incorrect to call an AFP case a polio case until confirmed by laboratory test,” she said. Over 35,000 reporting units across the country reported 60,782 children with AFP cases, which were followed up and investigated by the laboratories in the year 2011. Only one tested positive for polio, in Howrah district of West Bengal in January, 2011.

The child's stool samples were sent to the National Institute of Virology, Pune, and the School of Tropical Medicine, Kolkata; the test results are expected next week.

Media frenzy

International media, among them The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal, had been quick to pick up the story and splash it across the globe. “Child's paralysis sparks fears that India will fail in mission to be declared free of polio following removal from ‘endemic' list,” The Guardian wrote.

However, the report — like others in the international media — made no reference to the nature of AFP, or the context of the case. The next day, The Guardian ran a fresh story incorporating a rebuttal issued by the Ministry of Health.

Continued threat

Ms. Gupta said, however, that there were continued threats to India's polio-free status. Since Pakistan is yet to eradicate the disease, India has a serious threat of importing polio cases from across the border. Five booths have been set up along the India-Pakistan border for continuous vaccination of children up to 5 years who were crossing into India.

“We need to continue our efforts to eradicate polio. We need to ensure that all children up to the age of five are protected against polio until the disease is eradicated completely,” Ms. Gupta said.

India has a highly sensitive surveillance system that is capable of rapidly picking up cases of polio anywhere in the country. As part of surveillance, any child under 15 who suddenly develops floppiness or weakness or paralysis in any part of the body is investigated. AFP cases have to be tested to rule out polio as a cause of the illness.

The environmental surveillance of sewage samples is being tested for detection of the polio virus in Mumbai, Delhi, Patna and Kolkata.

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