The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Bengal spurt sets back polio drive

New Delhi, Sept. 6: The pulse polio programme has suffered a major setback with a sharp increase in the number of cases reported in Bengal.

Since last year, the number of polio cases has more than doubled in the state. While only one case — from South 24-Parganas — had been reported last year, this year one case was reported from Birbhum and 13 from Murshidabad. The infection in Murshidabad is spread over Samsherganj, Suti I, Suti II and Raghunathganj blocks, with seven cases being detected in Samsherganj alone.

In contrast, Orissa remained polio free last year, while the number of cases in Bihar dropped from 29 to 14. Bengal now ranks second to Uttar Pradesh — the single largest contributor to polio cases globally.

The main reason for the rising incidence of polio in Bengal — where the number of cases had come down from eight to one before shooting up again — is lack of implementation of the pulse polio programme. Of the 14 children affected by polio, nine are below the age of 2 years. The report shows that even routine immunisation did not reach these children.

The recent resurgence, according to officials, shows indifference on the part of the state government to the pulse polio programme. All the polio patients belong to the minority community, indicating the government’s lack of effort to reach out to this community, which is known to be wary of polio drops.

Pulse polio campaigners have been highlighting the social hurdles dogging the programme like the myth among Muslims that the immunisation drops will lead to infertility and the resistance by upper castes to being administered polio drops by lower castes.

Officials at the Centre fear the number of cases will rise further in Uttar Pradesh and Bengal in the coming months as the peak “polio season” is yet to come.

The data on Bengal indicates the state has become a “reservoir” of polio infection that is spilling over to neighbouring Jharkhand. Four polio cases have been detected in Pakur and Sahibganj districts in Jharkhand. Health department functionaries say it is an “extension” of the infection spreading in Bengal.

The Centre fears that if the cases continue unchecked they may spill over to Bangladesh, which has been free from polio for one-and-a-half years.

As such, authorities in Bangladesh are extremely worried at the rising incidence of polio in Bengal, say health officials.

Worse, the authorities do not know how far the infection has spread. “If this is the situation in Murshidabad, we dread to imagine what it could be like in places like Dinajpur or Tamluk,” said an official.

The Bengal government, according to health department functionaries, should have anticipated the crisis and taken necessary measures.

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