‘Polio — The Odyssey of Eradication’ review: Taking on a virus

Geopolitical and other realities of the battle against polio

When Thomas Abraham started to work on this book, which was after he left the World Health Organisation, he planned it to be an uncomplicated narrative of a battle against a disease, anchored to a message about the power of science and public health. But once he got immersed in the details, he says, what should have been a “simple history of the polio programme” turned out instead to be a complex account.

Most of us who are familiar with the public face of the polio programme may not be well-versed with some of the multidimensional aspects that cast their shadow. These are: polio as a resilient and unruly virus (whose shape, in the form of 10 interlocking equilateral triangles adorns, as metal bars, a window of the Vellore bungalow of Jacob John, India’s foremost polio expert); the compelling idea of disease eradication; aspects of world history; the failures and the achievements of a global campaign that began in 1988; scientific and expert opinion (often divided); egos, and powerful interests and inescapable geopolitical realities.

The eradication campaign has been driven by a key argument that after the successful global campaign against smallpox, polio too needed a similar response. To this, Abraham — a journalist and a professor — poses a question: is the poliovirus eradication a worthwhile and achievable goal or is it a public health programme on a wrong track, especially in developing countries that are grappling with other health issues?

The book rests on a strong scientific and technical foundation, with Abraham having pored over scientific papers, held interviews, and travelled as an ‘embedded’ journalist to polio heartlands. It can be read as a tale of biology, the science of vaccines and the future, personalities, country-specific campaigns and their problems (for example, religion, the Taliban and the danger posed to health workers, especially women), and the social impact of medicine. A very interesting part of a chapter on Pakistan is on the CIA’s use of a vaccination programme in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. It led to the deans of 12 schools of public health in the U.S. conveying their dismay to then President Barack Obama, which resulted in an undertaking by the agency not to use such intelligence gathering methods again.

Disease, says Abraham, is a mirror to understanding ourselves and the societies we live in. Books about disease, he adds, tend to be written by epidemiologists, medical practitioners or historians of medicine. Though he belongs to none of these professions, he serves up an engaging read on one of the world’s most ambitious health campaigns.

Polio: The Odyssey of Eradication; Thomas Abraham, Context/Westland Books, ₹699.

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Printable version | Jun 5, 2020 4:30:32 PM |

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